England 16-14 Wales
TWICKENHAM STADIUM — England scrambled their way to a second win from their opening two Six Nations matches as a chaotic match against Wales was decided by a sequence of knife-edged plays in the final quarter.
Steve Borthwick’s side were not ahead in the match until George Ford’s penalty goal with nine minutes to go, yet temporarily top the Six Nations table.
But with Scotland, Ireland and France to come, it would be brave for any Red Rose devotee to put title-winning champagne on ice – this was clearly much more about two teams in post-World Cup transition.
For Wales it is two losses out of two, although a total of six tries following last week’s 27-26 home loss to Scotland is a heartening figure for Dafydd Jenkins’s young side to hold into.
The pivotal final sequence began with Ford’s penalty on 47 minutes that cut into Wales’s half-time lead of 14-5, followed by two scrum penalties which put England on the front foot.
A win to back up the success in Italy seven days ago was within England’s grasp, if they could make enough passes stick.
Just after the hour mark, Ford kicked to touch, Ollie Chessum caught the line-out, and when an ineffectual drive ensued, Alex Mitchell and Ellis Genge made individual lunges.
Still the Wales defence held, so England recycled, right to left, and the outcome hung on a juggling catch by Elliot Daly from Ford’s long pass.
The Saracens wing’s grip was secure, and he shifted the ball on for Fraser Dingwall to slide into the corner.
Ford’s conversion missed but the fly-half added a much-needed penalty shot after a deliberate knock-on by Mason Grady – a situation that had arisen from Ford looking to his left and deciding nothing was on then pulling out a magnificent 50-22 to the right touchline.
England had begun with a few telling moments of promise mixed with disappointment: Freddie Steward’s line break followed by a stumble; Ford’s cross-kick to Henry Slade well dealt with by Rio Dyer; and a great attacking scrum position from which Slade fumbled the pass from scrum-half Mitchell.
Then the home team hit a dodgy period, with yellow cards to Chessum for a shoulder to the head of Keiron Assiratti and Ethan Roots for collapsing a maul as England defended with 14 men.
The second of these gave Wales a penalty try to lead 7-0 after 16 minutes, and England were down to 13.
In that same period, Ben Earl quickly got a try back for England with a great charge off a scrum and a left-handed reach to the line after Maro Itoje had rushed in to force a turnover penalty out of a hesitant Wales fly-half Ioan Lloyd.
But when Ford prepared for the conversion he never got as far as kicking the ball, as the 93-cap No 10’s slight sideways step was deemed by referee James Doleman to be starting the approach to the ball, and Tomos Williams led a successful Welsh rush to hoof the ball away from the tee.
It was the kind of head-scratching slip that makes morale sink, just when England were needing a boost.
And it got worse for the home side when Wales’s 22-year-old flanker Alex Mann galloped in for his side’s second try three minutes before half-time, set up by the marauding openside Tommy Reffell and scrum-half Williams.
By the break, the only thing resembling momentum for England had been a long sequence of 25 phases defending around their 22-metre line.
In the build-up to the Mann try, Wales wing Josh Adams bundled past both Dingwall and Slade, which may have made some pine for the tackling power of the injured centres Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence.
But it’s possible to list even more Welsh players than English who have departed the Test scene, temporarily or permanently, of late, so if it’s any kind of excuse of poor performance, it would apply to both sides.
England will be happy to hang their hang their hats on the win, but the trip to Murrayfield in a fortnight’s time will be a fresh step up.