England’s wins over Ireland and France had been defined by well-executed game-plans, taken from the training pitch and implemented effectively under the pressure the Six Nations provides.
In Dublin the tactic to send high, hanging kicks down the flanks to test Robbie Henshaw, playing out of position at full-back, was performed to perfection. At Twickenham, against a fragile French side, it was grubber kicks and the pace of Jonny May which did the damage, alongside some positional naivety from the opposition.
With two impressive wins in the bag, the question was: how would Eddie Jones, on the back of a week off, try to manufacture a victory in Cardiff which could break the back of a potential Grand Slam? Where were the chinks in the Welsh armour? Would it be more of the same or would the canny Australian spring a surprise?
After an attritional but fruitful first half which yielded a 10-3 lead thanks to Tom Curry’s try, it seemed he might just be pulling off another famous win – a sixth in succession over Wales in the Six Nations.
But facing a side who had won 11 games in a row, who are coached by the hugely experienced Warren Gatland and who were playing inside a boisterous Principality Stadium was never going to be straightforward.
And so it proved as the momentum shifted in the second half. Kyle Sinckler’s ill discipline allowed Gareth Anscombe’s boot to close the gap from the kicking tee and Wales did not take their foot off the gas, keeping England pinned back through a mixture of physical exertion and intelligent use of the ball.
Despite Anscombe’s solid display on the scoreboard and under the barrage of high balls, Dan Biggar was brought off the bench by Gatland and the fly-half rewarded his coach’s decision, maintaining territory expertly through measured kicking.
Through different methods England had been able to impose their game on both Ireland and France. Now they were being forced to play the opposition’s game – to think fast and adapt, rather than dictate.
But with captain and creative fulcrum Owen Farrell slightly off the pace, the bulldozing running of Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola subdued and the try-scoring threat of May forced to operate inside his own half, that response never materialised.
Cory Hill put the finishing touches to a relentless and patient 34-phase move before Biggar’s cross-field kick helped Josh Adams score to seal the win and leave Wales eyeing a much sought-after Grand Slam and a first Six Nations title since 2013.
“Wales played smartly and deserved to win,” Jones said. “It was nip and tuck and came down to fine margins. The world has not ended. We will learn from today and improve in the areas we need to. When you are under pressure, players do things that they do not do normally.”
And that is exactly the point. Through their dogged determination and skill, Wales robbed England of the ability to do what they do normally. The hosts had 65 per cent possession and 68 per cent territory and forced nine penalties in their favour.
It’s in these kinds of situations where Jones needs to diversify leadership and embed resilience. Wrestling back control of a high-stakes rugby match is not easy. But if England are to finish the Six Nations strongly and challenge for the World Cup later in the year they must be able to both take full toll of their periods of dominance and weather storms, regroup and hit back.
As Jones rightly pointed out, it’s unwise to cast judgement based on one game alone. The fabled Grand Slam is gone, but further tests are to come.