Wales Vs. England – Match report and comment
England's blunt-force forwards and stiletto-like backs do the business
Wales threw everything at England in Cardiff but were undone by a side showing grit and glimpses of greatness in a Six Nations Test to savour.
It was perishingly cold in Cardiff, but there was enough heat in the match to warm the blood of everyone in the stadium. Even with the roof open. It was, everyone agreed, a magnificent game, one that belied Eddie Jones' attempts to downplay the occasion.
Jones was only trying to draw the sting from it, to make sure the hype did not weigh too heavily on his players. But much as he insisted otherwise, there are few events in European rugby quite like England v Wales in Cardiff, when the whole city seems to be overtaken by feverish anticipation, so that every train and bus into the city teems with fans on their way to the game, and the streets around the ground are so full it feels as though every third person in Wales has come out to watch.
England dug deep to maintain Eddie Jones's winning run, coming from behind to win a dramatic Six Nations match against Wales in Cardiff 21- 16.
"A proper Test match," said Jones afterwards, a word he uses as others do superlatives, "in a proper atmosphere with a proper crowd." He could afford to be magnanimous. It wasn't a match of two halves, according to Jones, but three thirds. He was delighted with the way England played in the first quarter and the final quarter, and unimpressed with their "indifferent" performance in the 40 minutes between the two, when Wales were every bit as good as England had been in the moments either side. This was about right. England were superb in the first 20 minutes, "one or two passes away from scoring two or three tries", as Jones said.
They were irresistible in the run-up to the one they did score, remorselessly forcing their way down field to the tryline. Nathan Hughes had been underwhelming against France the week before. He suffered in comparison to the man he had replaced, Billy Vunipola. As, to be fair, any English No8 would. But Hughes was at the forefront here. If it wasn't Hughes coming on into contact, it was Joe Launchbury, or Courtney Lawes, or Maro Itoje, big men, taking it in turns to hurtle forward across the gainline.
Wales made a lot of tackles in this period – twice as many, altogether, as England did across the span of the first half – but didn't miss all that many. They just had to reel backwards, their line battered and dented as they went. They may as well have been trying to beat back the ocean with a hammer.
Add his 80 minutes up, and Hughes made 22 carries for 67 metres. Nobody on his team made more, on either count. Likewise, Launchbury won the man of the match award for his performance, and Lawes was the one man Jones picked out after the match. He said he had been left so battered and bruised he looked like "a human ice pack" after the doctors were done with him. There was a glimpse here of the England team Jones is working towards, the one we can expect to see in 2019. A brutally powerful set of forwards, breaking the opposition down with blunt force, and a set of backs, who in the judicious moment, step in and slip stiletto-like through the gaps left in the line.
Hughes was eventually knocked back as he drove for the tryline in one corner, but the ball soon flew across to the far side, through a fine long pass by Jonathan Joseph to Elliott Daly. He then slung a neat underhand off-load to Mike Brown, who did what he always does – dip his head and sprint forwards. Brown came down by the tryline, but Ben Youngs followed up behind him, and threaded his body through a needle-eye in Wales' defence.
As good as England were in this stretch, Jones still found something to grumble about. They were, he said, "a little bit overeager in attack" and made "too many long cut out passes" when they should have been "running straight, going through hands." These, he said, were the bad old habits coming back.
He will have a lot more to say in the next fortnight, you imagine, about the way they played in the next 40 minutes, though he was quick, and keen, and correct, to say Wales played wonderfully well in this period. "The best I've seen them." Jones slipped his aces from up his sleeve earlier than he had done against France and brought Jamie George and James Haskell on just after half-time, when England were trailing 13-8. Dylan Hartley shrugged it off afterwards, but the switch still seemed very significant.
Revived by those two substitutions, and the introduction of Danny Care soon after, England clicked back into the same high-tempo they had played earlier. They came up to the Wales line one, two, three times before Daly eventually slid past Alex Cuthbert and across the line for the winning try. Jones called this persistence "grit".
His opposite number, Rob Howley, reckoned it was a habit born from winning 15 games in a row. After a run like that, Howley said, "you think you can run through brick walls". England's players, he explained, "know what winning smells like". And the scent of it has been enough to pull them through two tough matches against France and Wales.
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