England sealed the Triple Crown and kept their Six Nations hopes alive – in theory, at least – with victory against Wales on Saturday, but they were made to work for it.
The hosts had to cling on as they finished the match with 13 men despite being the better side for long periods and registering tries from Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Manu Tuilagi.
The game could not have begun better for Eddie Jones’s side as a typically fast start yielded an early try.
It was the returning Watson whose quick feet proved the difference as he first won a lineout deep in Wales’s half before latching on to a clever Ben Youngs pass back inside from the resulting play as the Welsh over-committed to the chase out wide.
The winger wrong-footed Tomos Williams and dived past Liam Williams to the line inside four minutes to demonstrate why Jones had thrust him straight back into the starting XV.
Youngs steps up
Youngs – dropped two games ago – similarly repaid the faith shown by his head coach by producing one of his better performances.
The No9 was also heavily involved in England’s second try. After winning a penalty advantage after a high tackle from Ken Owens as he attempted to break the line, he used the free shot to great effect as the ball was sent out wide via Owen Farrell and George Ford for Daly to touch down.
Poor game management
But there should be questions of England’s game management as, having led 20-6, lapses in concentration either side of half-time allowed Wales back into the game.
England went from winning a scrum with time in the red to losing the ball in midfield. A high tackle from Maro Itoje then allowed Dan Biggar to add another three points before the break.
It then took Wales just 27 seconds into the second half to score their first try. Nick Tompkins collected from a poor England restart on his 5m line before Wales ran the entire length of the pitch with the ball passing through the hands of Josh Navidi, Tompkins once more, and then Williams, who drew the last man to send Justin Tipuric clear.
With the game in the balance at 20-16, England responded. And the work of the forwards, now coached by Matt Proudfoot, was particularly crucial, as they won back-to-back penalties through Courtney Lawes at the breakdown and then Joe Marler at the scrum to restore a 10-point cushion.
England were dominant from set-pieces throughout, not losing any of their own, and caused Wales particular problems at the scrum.
The momentum paved the way for Tuilagi to extend England’s lead with a third try after 60 minutes.
But despite cruising to victory at 33-16, the game quickly turned on its head again and England were forced to defend resolutely for the final 15 minutes.
England’s players put in a shift to fend off Wales in the final quarter, but ill-discipline saw penalties rack up and, despite a warning from referee Ben O’Keeffe, an Ellis Genge offside was the final straw as the prop was sin-binned.
The home side held firm nonetheless with Henry Slade preventing George North from scoring twice in a great performance at full-back after replacing Jonny May, who had failed a head injury assessment early on.
But while Slade had successfully tackled North, Tuilagi was judged to have hit the falling winger’s head with a no-arms tackle and was subsequently sent off, a decision Jones called “ridiculous”, although Tuilagi himself apologised to North as he left the field.
Wales made the most of their two-man advantage and scored twice late on through Biggar and Tipuric, but it was too little, too late as they fell to a third defeat.