Two nations going to war for eighty minutes: the annual clash between Wales and England sets two teams and, seemingly two national histories against each other. In a pre-match interview, an unusually circumspect Eddie Jones looked forward to ‘battle’ as he fully acknowledged the intensity of it, and the tense nature of the occasion. The final 33-30 scoreline rather flattered Wales, who had often seemed incapable of breaking through, even when they had a one-man and then a two-man advantage.
Wales were starting without Taulupe Faletau, injured last weekend while on duties for Bath but had brought in some big guns, with Rob Evans and Josh Navidi back in the pack, even though Navidi has had precious little play-time this year. Because England’s forwards pack some real power, pitting the likes of Joe Marler and Sinckler against Rob Evans and Dillon Lewis. And then there’s the Saracens’ Maro Itoje who is a dangerous team all by himself, soaring in the lineout and insatiably hungry for turnover ball. Luckily for Wales there was experience galore in the ranks, with the talismanic Ken Owens, the indestructible Dan Biggar – unrattled by recent injury – and the indefatigable captain Alun Wyn Jones, all on patriotic duty.
An Itoje steal in the air at the throw-in gifted England an early try, feeding Anthony Watson, who put on his jet boots to fly over the line. Captain Owen Farrell nonchalantly slotted over the extra couple of points. Clearly not the start the Welsh desired.
A punt gun kick by Biggar isolated Daly who knocked on, setting up a solid Welsh scrum and a real red flow toward the line, four phases of muscular running, with George North just losing the ball over the whitewash. A Welsh penalty saw Halfpenny settle nerves a bit with three points but Farrell replied with a successful kick through the posts after Wales handled the ball on the ground. Wales were proving successful in the tackle area, Tipuric jackalling like, well, a jackal followed by a red surge forward, Navidi carrying powerfully, led to another Welsh penalty. Halfpenny made it look easy, bringing the score at the 20-minute mark to England 10-6 Wales.
England’s second try started again with Itoje claiming the ball in the line-out but this time it was Daly who scythed over in the corner after neat interplay between Youngs, Ford and Farrell. With a two-score advantage, it underlined how many mistakes were creeping into Welsh play as the pressure built.
Dispiritingly, the score was 17-6 just before Wales had given away another penalty for collapsing the scrum and Farrell rubbed salt in the wound as he opened the points difference to 14 points. English line speed, in particular, was proving disruptive in the extreme. In extra time in the half Biggar put a penalty through the posts. Time for some soul-searching, or as the rugby cliché has it, for digging deep. Eliminating mistakes must have been part of the changing room mantra.
An explosive start to the second half by Wales saw Tipuric released for the line after intelligent play by Tompkins deftly avoiding men and a thrusting run by Navidi right from the kick-off. Wales had narrowed the margin to four points in just a minute of high octane running and positivity.
Farrell kicked a penalty but Wales were soon back in the running, as Rhys Webb came on for Tomos Williams and Liam Williams needled the white defensive line. As play flowed towards the Welsh line the defence held firm and soon a Welsh scrum seemed a pivotal point in the game as it went England’s way. Another white penalty, kicked by Ford, stretched England’s advantage to ten points, 26-16. Tompkins injected pace and acceleration to a Welsh movement as Jake Ball limped off. This had been a passage of play when English passing had been superb, as if it involved superglue. England started linking up and surged into the Welsh 22 and when Ford passed to Manu Tuilagi to score, it seemed inevitable, England heading even this early on for the Triple Crown as a consequence of commanding strength. Farrell converted the try, setting up a long, arduous final twenty minutes for the Welsh.
Wales regrouped and set off at a lick, putting together a multi-phase play but a crunching tackle on Liam Williams saw him lose the ball. Welsh pressure still cooked up, yielding a put in right in the corner. There had been lots of bodies down on the ground, Aaron Shingler and Alun Wyn Jones graduates in the school of hard knocks. A Welsh scrum under the posts was a real clash of the titans, with just ten minutes to go with red wave after red wave pressing for the line. Ellis Genge was given the yellow card, belatedly after multiple English infringements.
But Wales still couldn’t capitalise but North was denied a try when he was tackled without the use of arms, Tuilagi shoulder-charging the Anglesey giant’s head and red-carded as a consequence. The English, down to 13 men responded bravely, awarded a pressure-relieving scrum with five minutes left to go. But Biggar showed flair and scored a fingertip try, a flash of late pride and face-saving to boot. Blue-helmeted Tipuric scored a try in the final breath of this intense game after Rhys Webb had a trademark breaking run.
Biggar’s sure-footed conversion concluded a game which was Wales’ 3rd consecutive defeat for the first time since 2016. It was a deceivingly respectable scoreline which didn’t fully reflect English superiority and confidence alongside Wales’ simple inability to score in Twickenham’s superheated rugby cauldron.