Sweeping blue skies, the basking warmth of the spring sun and a calmness in the air that belied the battle that was due to commence between two of the oldest rivalries in rugby; England versus Wales.
England, still smarting from last year’s heavy defeat and looking for revenge. Wales, still struggling for form but still in with a chance of keeping themselves in the title hunt that would see them win their third successive title if successful; two sides with lots to prove, lots to gain and oh so very much to lose.
It was the home side, England, on the green carpet of the Twickenham turf that started much the better and drew first blood. Capitalising on a Welsh error deep inside their own territory by scooping up spilled ball, they quickly raced down field and into the Welsh 22. A Welsh infringement, a quick tap and go from the sniping England scrum half Danny Care, and a baffling sleepiness in the Welsh as they retreated to their own line with their backs to their opponents, saw England cross without a challenge to secure an easy try. Great opportunism by England as they extended their lead to seven through Owen Farrell’s boot, but it was unforgivable defence by Wales.
It fell to Leigh Halfpenny’s impeccable boot to keep Wales in the game. With a tactical kicking game going awry through a mix of poor execution from Rhys Priestland and poor chasing from the rest of the backline, Wales had to rely on forcing the errors from England, with hooker Dylan Hartley being more than happy to oblige.
Crossing over the half hour mark Wales were surprisingly still in reach of England, despite being dominated in terms of territory. Pressure soon told though when hooker Richard Hibbard overthrew a lineout in his own 22. Danny Care, as quick as ever quickly gathered the ball and tried to make use of the English overlap. Wales’ scramble defence appeared to have done the job but a clever grubber kick through from centre Billy Twelvetrees saw his partner in the midfield Luther Burrell sprinting out wide to gather and score.
It then seemed that England would pull out of sight, but Wales regrouped and started to make inroads again, and with Halfpenny having such a long range with his kicking boot, they rather surprisingly went into the break only trailing by five points, with the score set at 20-15 to England.
A rejuvenated Wales came out the second half, although they had somewhat surprisingly stuck with their half back pairing of Rhys Webb and Rhys Priestland who had appeared to struggle with the pace and control of the game in the first half.
Further penalties were exchanged before Gatland finally started to ring the changes, although it was in some cases far too late. Gethin Jenkins, on a day where he equalled Stephan Jones’ Wales cap record of 104, was having an afternoon to forget. Having been warned repeatedly by referee Poite in the first half about not scrimmaging straight, it was not long before he was penalised once again and yellow carded. He never returned to the field where his scrimmaging replacement Paul James then stayed on for the duration.
The introduction of Mike Phillips at scrum half did inject much needed pace in to Wales’ game, yet they could not make the most of the opportunities that came their way. As in the first half their best chance came on Jack Nowell’s wing, and where George North failed to pass out wide in the first half, this time Jamie Roberts failed to execute the grubber kick through that Twelvetrees had managed to do to such great effect in the first half.
England, with Owen Farrell being just as accurate as Halfpenny with the boot, kept extending England’s lead, and with each half chance being squandered by the men in red, time was quickly running out for them, and the pressure from the English was relentless.
It was only a superb cover tackle (technique aside) from fullback Leigh Halfpenny that prevented Luther Burrell getting his second try, after a scintillating, breathless run of play complete with offloads and excellent support lines.
The final whistle finally came with England claiming a decisive and thoroughly deserved 29-18 victory, and securing their first triple crown since 2003. They will now face Italy away in the final round, and if they secure a victory there they will hope that France can beat Ireland, so that points difference can fall in their favour and they can be crowned the 6 Nations champions of 2014.
Wales on the other hand will be taking a long hard look at themselves. The missed tackles and basic error count will be alarming for a team that is usually so disciplined and organised. It is not just the player errors that are worrying. Warren Gatland’s men have played a similar style since 2008, one which whilst providing them with dominance in the Northern Hemisphere, has seen them earn only one win out of twenty three games against Southern Hemisphere opposition who have found it all too easy to nullify Wales’ gameplan. It now appears that both Ireland and England have discovered how to do so as well. Unless there is some fall back plan or ability to adapt the game plan, you can’t help but wonder if Wales will continue to perform averagely. Yes the players can improve, but the tactics aren’t blameless either.
It isn’t all doom and gloom from the Welsh camp. Jon Davies returned to international rugby unscathed, and whilst clearly not match fit, he did not look hugely out of place either. Jake Ball in only his second international start, was one of Wales’ best players. Leigh Halfpenny again was superb and it is a blow to Wales that he will be missing for their final game against Scotland, after dislocating his shoulder in his try saving heroics.
If Wales beat Scotland on the last weekend, it looks likely they will finish in fourth place. After so much success in the last two seasons it will feel like a disappointment, but in reality it is a clear indicator of where the team currently is. Until accuracy improves and the basic error count falls they will continue to stay at this level.
Full Time: England 29 – 18 Wales
England: Brown, Nowell, Burrell, Twelvetrees, May, Farrell, Care, Marler, Hartley, Wilson, Launchbury, Lawes, Wood, Robshaw, Morgan.
Replacements: Goode for Brown (79), Ford for Farrell (79), Dickson for Care (79), M. Vunipola for Marler (64), Attwood for Launchbury (73), Johnson for Wood (79), Youngs for Hartley (69) Thomas for Wilson (73).
Wales: Halfpenny, Cuthbert, Davies, Roberts, North, Priestland, Webb, Jenkins, Hibbard, A. Jones, Lee, A. Jones, Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau.
Replacements: L. Williams for Halfpenny (76), Biggar for Priestland (62), James for Jenkins (64), Owens for Hibbard (55), R. Jones for A. Jones (67), Tipuric for Lydiate (76), Phillips for Webb (52), Coombs for Ball (73).
Sin Bin: Jenkins (53).
Ref: Romain Poite (France)