Eddie Jones' men want the Grand Slam prize to launch new glory era
When Dylan Hartley returned to the Twickenham pitch on Saturday evening after collecting the silver plate awarded to the Triple Crown winners, the England captain and his team-mates certainly didn't over-do the triumphalism. If anything, they appeared reluctant to pose for pictures with their prize, as it is not the one they really want. That RBS Six Nations trophy awaits them in Paris and the Grand Slam is in their sights.
The absence of excessive celebrations after this victory over Wales illustrated the scale of English ambitions and their frustrations over the way a procession gave way to a grandstand finish.
England defeated Wales 25-21 but the celebrations at HQ were not particularly wild on Saturday. England boss Eddie Jones and his team have their sights set on a greater Grand Slam prize.
This was a magnificent Test match which went some way to restoring the credibility of the entire event. While the visitors were in a state of near-disarray for far too long, they were simply unable to cope with the relentless force of England's performance during the first 50 minutes. It was the best rugby produced by the national team for a long time. There was a thunderous authority about Jones' side in the air, in their close-to-the-line attacking, in their defence and even — significantly — in their breakdown work.
Billy Vunipola was kept quieter than in previous rounds of this championship. But while Wales did well to limit the damage caused by the No 8, they couldn't stem the all-round onslaught. Maro Itoje is a raw novice operating in the manner of a seasoned giant of the sport. There is no way his quality can remain hidden, no matter how hard the whole England set-up attempt to wrap a cloak around this bright, shining beacon of optimism in the pack.
But this was no one-man show. James Haskell was also magnificent up front, while Ben Youngs and Anthony Watson — who was imperious in the aerial exchanges and scored a try again — made telling contributions. If England play like they did until Dan Biggar's bolt-from-the-blue try in the 54th minute, they will surely dismantle France in their own stadium to claim a Grand Slam in fine style.
At that level, they may even stand toe-to-toe with the Wallabies when they venture Down Under in June, such was their direct power, high-tempo intensity and spark of invention. They made a very good team look dreadful over a sustained period at Twickenham. Wales might struggle to beat hopeless Italy at home in their final Six Nations fixture if they play as badly as they did before Biggar charged down a George Ford clearance and ran through to score and re-ignite the contest.
The visitors had no possession as their pack were under siege and when they did lay hands on the ball, they were static and utterly lacking in conviction. Warren Gatland was incensed and did not spare his players. 'I sent a message on after 25 minutes asking if we needed to get some fresh legs out there,' said the Kiwi. 'It was a very poor first half by us. At this level, that's just not acceptable so I'm very disappointed. Only the players can answer the question why they were so flat or lethargic in the first half.
'There was so much to play for, so much on the line, and unfortunately we didn't turn up in the first 40 minutes.' At 19-0 up and when they later led 25-7, it was set fair for England to claim a thumping win which would have lifted them up to fourth in the world rankings, just weeks after sitting in eighth.
Instead, the tables were turned as the Welsh mounted a desperate rearguard action. Gatland and his assistants must work out why — for the umpteenth time over recent years — their team suddenly came to life when the game was all but up. If Wales had been so fired up and liberated from the off, this wouldn't have been a mismatch for so long. Ken Owens and Luke Charteris made a strong impact from the bench and the backhanded offload by Liam
Williams in the build-up to the late try by George North was a glimpse of sorcery that isn't harnessed often enough. Taulupe Faletau's try three minutes from time set up the possibility of a Wales victory which would not have been a reasonable reflection on the match. England deserved the win and had been propelled towards it in large part by Owen Farrell's goal-kicking masterclass. But they made life hard for themselves late on, with Dan Cole's yellow card for collapsing a maul a major factor in the dramas at the death.
Jones felt that his players had been guilty of consolidating rather than continuing to press for more points. 'We're a go-at-'em team,' he said. 'In the last 20 minutes we tried to play like a strangulation team.
We sat back, kicked and defended. I don't want us playing rugby like that.' In truth, Wales were always going to come alive at some stage, so the English inquest shouldn't be too harsh. The new regime has four wins from four and a first Grand Slam for 13 years is within reach. Out of the rubble of the World Cup debacle, this is a compelling revival.
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