Rugby World's verdict on a match full of drama at the Principality Stadium
Wales lift the Triple Crown – now for the Grand Slam?
Rugby smarts. Rugby is so often viewed as a battle of brawn but it was brains that proved decisive as Wales beat England 40-24 in this Six Nations fixture in Cardiff.
Yes, there was controversy over Wales’ two first-half tries – more of which later – but the hosts won this match, and with it the Triple Crown, in the closing 20 minutes, not the first 30.
When England drew level through a Ben Youngs try, converted by Owen Farrell, midway through the second half, they looked in a strong position to close out a win and get their title bid back on track.
Instead, a succession of penalties allowed Wales to not only relieve pressure in their own half but pull clear on the scoreboard as Callum Sheedy was only too happy to bisect the posts – and they finished with a flourish when Cory Hill scored a bonus-point try.
Had England kept calm and built pressure, rather than trying to force things, it could be them going into their final two games with the trophy in their sights. Now it’s Wales who should see off Italy in round four and head to Paris in a few weeks bidding for yet another Grand Slam – they already have more of those than any other team in the Six Nations era.
Discipline, or lack thereof, was a problem for England against Scotland in their opening fixture and it was again here as they conceded 14 penalties to Wales’ nine – five of them from Maro Itoje. They can feel hard done by when it comes to those first-half try decisions but that is not where the game was won and lost.
Matt Dawson’s description of the late flurry of offences as “verging on mindless” on BBC Radio 5Live seemed apt. Similar accusations have been levelled at England when it comes to their tactics and inability to adapt, to find different ways of breaking down opponents when breaking through them doesn’t work. Rather than think their way out of trouble, they played their way into it, continually being pinged by the referee.
The irony is that England looked more dangerous in Cardiff than they have for months, their attacking game sparking into life. Criticised for their dependency on the boot in recent months, it was their handling that stood out in this match. They still kicked a fair bit – and with more variety – but it was with ball in hand that they looked most dangerous.
Quick hands along the line saw them push deep into Wales’ territory, albeit that Jonny May was marshalled well by Louis Rees-Zammit and George North. It was one of these fluid movements that led to Youngs dummying over and momentum appeared to be with the visitors – but then came penalty after penalty, Wales took advantage and Alun Wyn Jones lifted the Triple Crown.
Back to those try decisions. The first one came when Pascal Gauzere gave Owen Farrell time to talk to his players about the number of penalties being conceded – but not too much time. As soon as Gauzere called ‘time on’, Dan Biggar kicked crossfield while England were still chatting under the posts and Josh Adams plucked the ball out of the air to score.
It’s easy to see why Farrell remonstrated with Gauzere afterwards but the referee had called time back on and England should have been more aware of what was happening 20 metres away, keeping an eye on the official’s signals and the opposition’s movements. There’s always a danger in assuming a team will kick for goal from a penalty; you have to stay alert.
The second one they can feel more aggrieved by. Rees-Zammit’s failure to gather an Adams kick wasn’t ruled a knock-on by the TMO, so Liam Williams’s subsequent try stood – but it seemed only the officials didn’t see a knock-on. Even Rees-Zammit looked surprised at the call.
Rugby is a game of nuances and grey areas but, in my view, that was the wrong decision.
To reiterate, though, it wasn’t those decisions that lost England the game. They actually reacted positively to get themselves back in contention, an Anthony Watson try and a Farrell penalty making it 17-14 at half-time.
They switched off in the 48th minute when Kieran Hardy took a quick tap to dart over – one of the first things you learn in rugby is not to turn your back and a few England players did just that – but again they came back.
At 24-24 England looked the more likely to go on and win, but all those infringements mounted up as they looked almost too eager to get the next score. Rather than a steady, methodical approach, their ill-discipline released the pressure on Wales, who were able to close out the game.
Now for a Grand Slam?
How quickly things can change in rugby. Wales came into this championship with many predicting a fifth-place finish, but instead they will go to Rome in two weeks confident of making it four wins from four.
It’s all building up nicely to a Grand Slam ‘decider’ in Paris, although who knows if France will have played their four games by then with such uncertainty around the rescheduling of the Scotland fixture. Wales have won there before in 2005 and 2019 en route to Slams – can they do it for the third time this year?
People have described Wales’ 2021 run as ‘lucky’, following the red cards against the opposition in their wins over Ireland and Scotland then the controversial tries in this match.
Firstly, I think ‘luck’ is probably an inappropriate word when referring to the red cards given those sendings off relate to protecting players from brain injury. Secondly, Wales have shown a steely mentality to grind out wins in those opening games and then had the smarts to do the same in Cardiff.
Wales certainly don’t look as good a side as France currently – not many teams do right now – but here’s a positive omen for Wales fans: Cory Hill also scored a try against England when Wales completed the clean sweep in 2019.
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