The Six Nations really got underway for England and Wales on Saturday as the hosts came out on top in a tight game at Twickenham to maintain their 100% record.
After fairly regulation victories for both sides in the first round of fixtures, over Italy and Scotland respectively, round two was the first real test for the old enemies, in a game that in recent years has been the most competitive game in the Championship.
Wales initially remained unchanged in their starting XV, with George North the only change on the bench as Owen Watkin gave way. However, Leigh Halfpenny rocked Warren Gatland’s side by withdrawing late in the week due to a foot infection. Gareth Anscombe started at full-back, with Watkin restored to the squad.
With the rain teeming down at Twickenham, it would be England who stormed out of the blocks to catch Wales napping. An early kicking exchange left Rhys Patchell, Josh Adams and Gareth Anscombe out of position, allowing Owen Farrell to put an inch perfect kick in behind the Welsh defence for Jonny May to slide onto.
Farrell failed to add the extras, but England were still 5-0 up inside five minutes, and continued to dominate throughout the opening 20 minutes of the game.
Some heavy, direct carrying from England, playing at a high tempo, was enough to continually put Wales on the back foot, and as soon as the ball was around the Welsh five-metre line there was trouble.
The visitors infringed at the breakdown, and with the advantage Farrell looped a wide pass to Joe Launchbury, who produced a wonder offload for May’s second try of the game. This time Farrell did convert it, and the score was 12-0 halfway through the first period.
Eventually, Wales were kicked into life, and Rhys Patchell finally got the ball in his hands at first receiver. Looking out wide from the edge of England’s 22, the fly-half put a pinpoint kick into the corner which cannoned off the shins of Steff Evans before Gareth Anscombe and Anthony Watson dived for the ball as it bobbled around the in-goal area.
Neither referee Garces nor assistant Clancy could judge who arrived first, so it was down to TMO Glenn Newman to answer ‘try, yes or no?’. What followed has been hotly debated, but whether you think Evans knocked it on, or Anscombe touched the ball down first, the TMO got the decision wrong.
Fortunately, with an hour still left on the clock, there was plenty of time for Wales to get back into the game. They still managed to score next, with the referee playing advantage before the disputed no-try decision, as Patchell successfully kicked the penalty goal.
With the defence now setup effectively, forming a red wall to keep England from adding to their lead, Wales got to grips with dominating possession and trying to play in the right areas.
Unfortunately there were a number of key components which contrived against Warren Gatland’s men in the hunt for points, as England dominated the visitors physically at the breakdown, Wales kicked very poorly throughout to a back three comfortable under the high ball, and failed to turn good carries into solid line breaks.
All of the above served to ramp up the pressure on the Wales attack and result in a number of handling errors being committed, while frustration told in the form of handbags after one penalty appeal.
20 scoreless minutes resulted in the scores staying 12-3 at half-time, a theme that would continue into the second half.
Despite not adding to the scoreboard, there was a significant change for Wales as Gareth Anscombe was pushed up more into the fly-half position, until Rhys Patchell was eventually replaced on 55 minutes. The Cardiff Blues player showing all the class we’ve come to expect at the Arms Park.
His trademark half-break-and-offload got the visitors moving forward on two occasions, while a clever chip nearly set up a try scoring opportunity, but for a knock-on. With Aaron Shingler continuing to show his impressive Scarlets form with a solo break, things were looking up for Wales.
Unfortunately, Wales’ best chance at a second half try would slip agonisingly down the wrong side of the corner flag just after the hour mark. A superb Anscombe break from deep setup field position in the England half, and he was supported well by Haldeigh Parkes and Shingler.
Eventually Ken Owens fed George North, on as a substitute after returning to fitness, who fixed last man Mike Brown and sent Scott Williams towards the corner. With Sam Underhill coming across, Williams dived low and early, but the Ospreys flanker was equal to his former West Wales rival and rolled him into touch.
As the clock ticked towards the final 15 minutes, Wales started to chase the game, adding extra tension to the attacking game that was already failing to function as well as it did last week against Scotland.
However, the same old story met Warren Gatland’s men as England continued to dominate them physically in close quarters into the end of the game, and ramped up the pressure with impressive line speed to force handling errors.
Gareth Anscombe was able to kick Wales into losing bonus point range with a few minutes to go, but it didn’t lead to any further troubling of the scoreboard, and England ran out 12-6 winners to maintain their 100% record in this year’s Six Nations.
For Wales there were definite positives to take into the fallow weekend ahead of a trip to Ireland in round three. A masterful defensive performance kept a talented English side to just 12 points, while there were more impressive performances across our back row and up front.
With what are considered more ‘first-team’ players in Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Leigh Halfpenny likely to be back for that next game, Warren Gatland has some decisions to make as he searches for an attacking style that can break down the Irish.
Balance within the pack to match Ireland’s physicality and link in with the ball-playing style will be key, as will developing a kicking game that doesn’t offer a dangerous Irish back three the chance to run freely with ball in hand.
No doubt Gatland will have something up his sleeve for a trip to the Emerald Isle, where he isn’t so loved on the back of his stints as Lions coach. If that comes good, and he can inspire his players to bounce back from defeat at Twickenham, there is still a chance to have a tilt at the Championship. The Six Nations has a long way to go yet.