Wales have not won a Six Nations match at Twickenham since 2012 and that unbroken record continues. Until the final quarter of a changing contest, however, it was England who were staring nervously into the abyss. Steve Borthwick’s side are trying to find ways to win tight games but, for the second weekend in a row, the final margin was too close for comfort.
This time England, 14-5 down at the interval, were indebted to a penalty kick from George Ford with eight minutes remaining as well as a 62nd minute effort from Fraser Dingwall, playing in his second Test. Until the final quarter the hosts showed only signs of attacking fluency but, in the end, through a juggling catch and offload from Elliot Daly and a superb finish from Dingwall in the left corner, their relieved supporters had something to say .
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Wales, down to 14 men by the end after a yellow card for Mason Grady, were left lamenting that they could not maintain what they had started. With Tommy Reffell outstanding and Warren Gatland’s tactical plan helping to mislead England, the visitors’ early spirit and energy would be rewarded if they stuck with them. Instead, again for the second Saturday in a row, they were unable to seal the deal with England’s bench far more influential.
Wales always knew they needed an 80-minute performance for England’s first win in this year’s competition. For long periods their opponents were where they wanted to be and, when they sit down to reflect, their hosts will recognize that they will need to improve significantly to defeat Murrayfield in a fortnight’s time.
Part of the problem was England’s failure to capitalize on their momentum at the start of the game. Freddie Steward scythed straight through Adam Beard, a hairy Welsh moment in every sense, Daly didn’t quite back himself up to burn the cover with space in front of him and Henry Slade kicked the ball out on the full with other options available. Wales was clinging to it and looking for a break of any description.
One duly came when Ollie Chessum was shown a yellow card for a high tackle on tight end Keiron Assiratti. Wales, almost for the first time, started to make a yard and a great corner kick from Ioan Lloyd gave them a perfect attacking platform. Sure enough, an accurate throw at the back set off a rumbling drive that a depleted England could only halt illegally. New Zealand referee James Doleman awarded an instant penalty try before sending Exeter forward Ethan Roots to the increasingly crowded bin.
To England’s credit they hit back immediately, Maro Itoje tripping Lloyd close to his own line and setting up a scrum position from which Ben Earl burst through an Alex Mann tackle and stretched over to score. There was no conversion to be had, however, Ford’s slight disturbance in his set-up allowing the Welsh defenders to rush out before the flight began its approach in earnest.
Restored to 15 players, now was the time for this latest ‘new’ England – there are still plenty of fresh dances – to put the pedal down. Instead it was Wales who were showing more energy, intelligence and punk. In Reffell too they had an architect of broken chaos with the instincts of a poacher and the paw prints of the Leicester Tiger all over the visitors’ second try.
England’s new defensive structure is still a work in progress and again it was porous as Wales found a gap with a beautiful inside offload from Reffell to Tomos Williams who sent Cardiff rookie blindside Mann over for his second try in as many Tests. The 22-year-old is clearly Mann for the big occasion.
A nine-point lead at half-time was a far cry from Wales’ first-half challenge against Scotland in Cardiff. However, their recovery from 27-0 down provided some self-belief and England needed some answers. The home crowd, having had their ears pounded at half time by an extremely loud DJ set, suddenly the cathedral was quiet.
They went ahead when Dingwall fired Daly down the left, but only after a brave and highly effective attack from Josh Adams forced the winger into touch. Daly has scored important tries for his country in the past but one or two other hurlers in the world might have had a more ruthless advantage.
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A killer instinct is one of many key qualities that England are only occasionally showing at the moment. Without set piece dominance they simply don’t have enough weapons elsewhere to make sides pay or sustain pressure for any length of time. They want to play with speed but, overall, they don’t have enough ball carriers and speed merchants to hurt each other.
For a can coach like Gatland, it offers a potentially rich pick. George North and Nick Tompkins consistently posed physical questions about England’s midfield and the visitors were not about to repeatedly kick the ball out of the field and give England a useful flow of line possession.
This left England having to find their own final escape routes. The first of two Ford penalties brought the score back to 14-8 but with the ball in hand it was still Wales who were asking the most appropriate questions. Not for the first time, England were beaten by Cameron Winnett who was fed outside Adams. If Rio Dyer had got his team-mates together, it could have been one of the great Welsh nights in south-west London. Instead he was a grateful Englishman who enjoyed the last laugh.