Wales run riot in second half to leave England reeling in World Cup warm-up
Wales sent England spinning to a 20-9 defeat in Cardiff following a sparkling second half performance as the two side began their final phase of World Cup preparation in Cardiff.
Second-half tries from Gareth Davies and George North staved off a fifth successive home loss for Wales as England boss Steve Borthwick was given plenty to ponder less than 48 hours before he names his World Cup squad.
Few players left lasting impressions, although there were some impressive moments from fly-half Marcus Smith and number eight Alex Dombrandt, with Wales responding superbly to a three-point interval deficit.
England were abysmal with their ball-retention, conceding a colossal 22 turnovers, and Wales did not require a second invitation to capitalise.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny marked his 100th cap by converting both tries and kicking two penalties, with Smith kicking England’s points through three first-half penalties.
England’s opening World Cup game against Argentina is just five weeks away, yet Borthwick will not be reaching for any panic button with three warm-up fixtures still to come on the August schedule.
For Wales, it was a significant confidence-booster following a fifth-placed finish in last season’s Six Nations as they recorded just a third win from the last 11 Tests.
Halfpenny led out the Wales players, who wore black armbands in memory of former Wales captain and coach Clive Rowlands following his death last weekend at the age of 85.
Wales suffered an early injury blow when hooker Ryan Elias was forced off after taking a blow to his right leg, with Dragons forward Elliot Dee replacing him.
A long-range Smith penalty nudged England ahead, rewarding initial dominance as the visitors monopolised possession and territory, putting Wales firmly in back-foot mode.
Smith soon doubled the advantage when Wales were guilty of a scrummaging infringement, but a Halfpenny strike made it 6-3 towards the end of an opening quarter high on intent, yet littered with errors.
Wales fly-half Sam Costelow created the game’s first clear-cut chance 15 minutes before half-tine when his inside pass freed wing Louis Rees-Zammit, but he slipped with England’s line at his mercy.
It was much better from Warren Gatland’s team and Halfpenny deservedly drew them level through a 26th-minute penalty.
England responded through some clever work from Smith that created space for centre Joe Marchant, before wing Joe Cokanasiga was tackled into touch near the corner-flag.
Despite conceding 12 turnovers during the first 35 minutes, England remained on top, while there were also scrummaging issues for Wales as debutant props Corey Domachowski and Keiron Assiratti had a testing opening half.
Smith completed his penalty hat-trick to make it 9-6 at the interval, yet England knew they needed to sharpen their attacking edge in the second period.
The game required a spark and Wales duly found one just eight minutes into the second period.
Costelow’s kick found number eight Aaron Wainwright and his one-handed pass was collected by captain Jac Morgan, who brushed off challenges from Cokanasiga and replacement Jonny Hill before a supporting Davies touched down.
It was a try of outstanding quality and Halfpenny’s conversion opened up a four-point lead before Gatland made four changes.
The new arrivals included debutants Taine Plumtree and former England prop Henry Thomas, who qualifies for Wales through his father.
Thomas was able to switch countries under new World Rugby regulations which mean players can feature for their country of birth – or their parents’ or grandparents’ birth – provided a minimum period of three years has elapsed since they were last selected for an adopted country.
Borthwick also rang changes midway through the third quarter, introducing international newcomers Theo Dan and Tom Willis as England looked to reassert themselves in the contest.
But Wales were a team transformed after the break and when North crossed for his 45th try in the red shirt England entered the final quarter 11 points adrift.
Wales were within inches of adding a third try during the closing minutes, but Rees-Zammit knocked on behind the line under pressure from England full-back Freddie Steward.
The damage, though, had long been done ahead of next Saturday’s return fixture at Twickenham.
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