On a weekend where the coronavirus outbreak began to really affect the sporting calendar, this game between England and Wales became even more anticipated, with both teams looking to take advantage of the postponement of Ireland’s match against Italy, and gain some useful points.
Beginning with England, there has been a huge turnaround in their fortunes and performances since the opening day loss to France. This was yet another step in the right direction, and there were some signs in this match that this might yet be their year for another Six Nations title. The prospect of the Triple Crown being the prize for victory in this game seemed to really fire England up, and they were very much up for it in it’s early stages.
Firstly, they attacked in an interesting manner. Whilst most teams tend to make the ball do the work, and quickly pass it down the line before finding some space, England wanted to run with it, and then pass it. What this did was it slowed down the passing, obviously, but it also drew the Welsh players into the English line, thereby creating the space required in order to run through the Welsh defence.
The intent was also there to hunt down the ball when they lost it, and that is something that we haven’t known England to do for a little while, so that was pleasing to see. One example of this was a lineout that England lost, which they then followed up by winning the ball back off Wales very quickly. In fact, their first try came off the back of something similar to this. They managed to win their lineout, and then rather than settling for the maul, they passed the ball into the middle where Ben Youngs was waiting, but then switched the play back towards the wing, allowing Anthony Watson to breeze through and score. It was a really good move, but it only worked because of several things being done. First, Jamie George worked as a dummy, moving infield and taking Wales’ eye off Watson, and second, it needed Youngs to look the other way, as if he was passing towards the middle of the pitch, which also fooled the Welsh defence. It was a really nice move from the home side.
Anthony Watson in particular needs a mention, because I thought he was really impressive throughout, especially given that he has been out with injury since the World Cup last year. He was chasing balls down, controlling the wing, leading the line well, and was often the furthest player forward in the first half. It was really encouraging to see him back to his best.
England’s dummies were the main reason that Wales were being caught out. Their second try came from this, and also that England were running with the ball rather than passing it, as previously mentioned. Again, it was a delayed pass that drew Wales inside the pitch, leaving the wing free, and that’s where Saracens’ winger Elliott Daly was able to go through for the 5 points. They were certainly on top at this point, with the Welsh defence looking incredibly unsure whenever England were advancing.
In the second half, it was a really slow start for England, which was more down to Wales’ rapid attacks than anything (but more on that later).
Henry Slade had come on early in the first half for Jonny May, after the Leicester Tigers winger had had to go off for an HIA assessment, which he failed, and I thought he was really impressive. He was constantly the one making things happen, and whenever England were on the attack, Slade was the one making the initial movement forward to gain some ground. He also defended really well, in one case stopping George North going over.
That was the same tackle that saw Manu Tuilagi receive a red card for a shoulder charge. For my opinion on that, I simply thought it was quite harsh on him if I’m honest. Yes, it was a shoulder lead, but if you look at Wales wing George North’s position when Tuilagi actually made contact, he was on his knees, due to Slade’s initial tackle on him. That is as clear a mitigating factor as I have ever seen. It was interesting that England and Tuilagi didn’t argue with the red card, but I still thought it was harsh.
Before his dismissal, the Leicester centre did score a relatively simple try, which was England’s third. It was scored because Wales were never allowed to get to the breakdown by England, because they kept the ball alive even when on the ground. It was incredibly smart from them, because it kept drawing Wales inwards, and that created the space on the wing for Tuilagi to walk over and place the ball down, and those aren’t exaggerations.
England’s defensive tactic was also interesting to analyse. They defended by advancing together as a group, but most teams will advance by pushing one or two players up together, which often means that the ball is slowed down but not stopped altogether. England’s tactic saw them closing down the space, and because there were six of seven players surrounding the ball, it was easier to rip it from Wales or to win a penalty for Wales not releasing the ball.
The defending was also outstanding from England in the closing parts of the game, although they did concede a late try, but what they need to be commended for is that they were down to 13 men, having had some questionable decisions go against them, and yet they were still fighting.
They deserved their win, although they will know that they still need to improve. However, as to when, or more to the point, whether they will play their final game against Italy, is still up in the air.
A final mention should be given to lock George Kruis, who may have played his final game at Twickenham. Rumours are that he is considering a move to Japan at the end of this season, which would mean he would be ineligible for international selection. He has been a good player for the England side over the last six years or so, and will be missed.
As for Wales, they began very slowly, but then this tournament we haven’t seen the same Wales that we saw last year when they won the title. There is one easy explanation for this, which is that they have a new coaching staff, so I don’t think we can judge them on anything just yet.
They obviously wanted to play the ball quickly and move forwards as rapidly as they could, but the trouble was that England’s high defence meant that the Welsh simply gave England the chance to intercept the ball whilst it was in the air and being passed from player to player. It also meant England found it a little easier to tackle Wales, and take the ball off them.
The first half didn’t have too provide too much to shout about for Wales, but the second half was where we can really talk about them. Their first try, which came just a minute or so after the start of the second half, was incredibly easily worked, but also involved some good play from the Welsh players. Saracens’ centre Nick Tompkins has not looked out of place in a Wales shirt since his debut at the start of this tournament, and it was his good work that set up flanker Justin Tipuric to run through and score underneath the posts. England’s lack of communication also contributed to the ease with which Wales scored their try. Three players all crowded over to the wing to stop Tompkins running through, which created the space for Tipuric on the inside.
Wales’ early pace in the second half caught England out, and the home side were caught cold on a couple of occasions. Tompkins is particular, as previously mentioned, was really good. Just like Slade in the first half, he was leading a lot of the charges forwards, and that’s what he does on a regular basis for Saracens in the Premiership.
It was interesting that Wales were choosing to scrum when awarded penalties, but then they needed a try, so in that sense it was perhaps understandable. England’s defence also looked drained in the latter stages of the game, and were depleted with them being two players down. Seeing as this was in the last 10 minutes or so, it was the right move to do in that it allowed Wales to score two late tries and secure a potentially crucial losing bonus point.
The second Welsh try, scored by Dan Biggar, came about simply because England gave him too much space to move, whilst Justin Tipuric’s second try was scored for the same reason. In the end though, it wasn’t enough to see them take the win, but they did get the bonus point, as mentioned. As far as performances went, it wasn’t a bad one from Wales, but they will know that this was a missed opportunity given that they were two players up in the closing stages of the game.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There were a few good performances from England, but there was one player who I thought did really well. Henry Slade wasn’t meant to come on so early, but he did due to Jonny May’s early departure, and he was involved in everything, and constantly whenever England were attacking or defending, he was right in the middle of it. It was a good all-round showing from him and it’s good to see him back to his best after his injury.
At the moment, Wales will host Scotland in their final match of the tournament, which will take place at the Principality Stadium on Saturday lunchtime. England, meanwhile, are finished for now, with their final game against Italy postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus concerns.