The rivalry between Wales and England always makes their annual clash one to watch. Both teams are in opposite form to how they were last year, with Wales flying high and playing much better, whilst England haven’t really looked at the best so far this tournament, to put it mildly. Both sides needed the win, not just for bragging reasons, but also in the context of the tournament, with Wales knowing they could open up a lead at the top over France, whose game against Scotland was called off this weekend, whilst England wanted to show their fans that they were still in the title hunt.
The main talking point about Wales in the last year has been their defensive issues, and, whilst it has been better so far this year, they still leave a few spaces open for their opponents to attack through. Here, England’s first penalty kick of the game came when Wales allowed them to advance forwards into their line, so this is something that Wales still needed to be wary of, particularly as England have runners in their team who like to get into those spaces.
However, in attack, Wales were playing well, and were alert to situations. This was shown in their controversial first try, which came following a penalty, with referee Pascal Gauzere allowing Northampton Saints fly-half Dan Biggar to kick across the field to Cardiff Blues winger Josh Adams, despite England not being ready to play, as they were having a team talk asked for by Gauzere. Despite the protests, the try stood, and it wasn’t the only time Wales were able to create opportunities to score; they were making small advances all over the pitch, but struggled to find a way through England’s defence at times, which is more to do with England’s defending than Wales’ attack. The second Welsh try was also controversial, because it looked like a knock-on, but the ball didn’t actually hit the ground.
Rather than going into the debate of whether it was or wasn’t, here is what respected former international referee Nigel Owens said afterwards (in Wales Online: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-news/its-100-per-cent-knock-19932005 )
“You see situations sometimes where a player loses control of a ball and then kicks it before it hits the ground. Well, that’s still classed as a knock on.
“What the law says is if a player loses control of the ball forward, he must regain possession of it before it touches the ground or anybody else.”
Quite simply, it did look as if everything was going in Wales’ favour in the first half, but they still needed to find a way through England’s defence, which was holding fairly firm up until this point.
In the second half, they made an early change, bringing on Bristol Bears fly-half Callum Sheedy for Biggar, and Sheedy is a creative player who likes to set up chances for his teammates (he is one of the big reasons why Bristol are such a good team at the moment). His introduction definitely helped them in this, as they found it easier to create opportunities in the second half. However, particularly in the closing stages, they struggled to convert those chances, even though it didn’t matter at that point, as they were simply kicking for the posts at every opportunity. Ultimately, this game showed how Wales have regained their confidence this year, and, whilst the win that secured the Triple Crown was controversial, the home side wholly deserved the win.
England, meanwhile, needed a good start to settle the nerves of fans around the country, and began reasonably well, getting forward to stop Wales gaining any ground when they had the ball. Their back line, especially full-back Elliott Daly, constantly got underneath high balls in the opening stages, and it was clear that England were looking to get on the front foot as much as possible, aiming to put pressure on the Welsh defence.
However, England did, of course, concede those tries that will be debated for a long time yet. Whilst the first shouldn’t have been awarded, it did come because England conceded the penalty, and this is England’s biggest fault at the moment. They constantly give their opponents opportunities to score points against them, because their discipline is really poor throughout games. They were on the end of a few tight decisions, admittedly, but they generally struggled to get any momentum going. However, as soon as they did find some, they looked a completely different team, finding spaces and scoring a try through Bath winger Anthony Watson. This was much-needed, and gave them the confidence that had been missing until then. They began to find a few more gaps in the Welsh defence, exploiting them where possible, and, whilst Wales started the game better England finished it better, and will be relatively happy with the last stages of the half, but disappointed that they couldn’t make more of an impact on the overall first 40 minutes.
They needed a good second half, but their poor discipline continued to haunt them, and they gave Wales easy penalties for things like coming into a ruck at the side, before then switching off and allowing Wales scrum-half Kieran Hardy to run through and score from the tap-and-go. The constant errors and lack of momentum meant that England never looked like getting into the game in the second 40 minutes, which is worrying. It is just little things, but, until England address them, they won’t be a worry for too many teams who face them.
The point about England that many are saying is that they looked slow and almost under-prepared. They didn’t have enough speed with the ball, which meant Wales could organise themselves and close off the gaps here. However, when they did speed it up, Wales couldn’t get across, and scrum-half Ben Youngs went over for the try that got England back into the game as a result. These are the basics of attack and defence, and it is something England clearly need to go back to and work on before their next game, otherwise their poor form will continue. Ultimately, though, the main talking point was England’s discipline issues and penalty concession rate, which let them down badly, and has been a feature of all three of their games so far. We can expect that there will be some serious questions asked in and out of the camp about this, and whether some changes need to be made at all.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There were several good performances in the Welsh ranks, but Bath number 8 Taulupe Faletau had an outstanding game. He was involved in everything good, being part of a star back row that included Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric, and drove Wales forward at every opportunity. He is a player who looks back to his best, and is fairly unstoppable at the moment.
The Six Nations takes another break next weekend. Wales’ next game on their road to a possible title is a trip to Rome, where they face Italy at the Stadio Olimpico in Saturday’s early game. England, meanwhile, will look to put on a better showing when they host France at Twickenham later on on the same day.