England v Wales rarely disappoints and despite mistakes from both sides Saturday’s encounter went right to the wire. The England v Wales clash encapsulates why the Six Nations is the premier rugby competition on the planet.
17-0 early in the second half and cruising England looked set to bolster their points difference to challenge France. A wonderfully loose Wales then scored two quick-fire tries to bring it back 17-12 and from then on it was squeaky bum time for England. It is credit to Courtney Lawes’ team that they held on in the end. Another five minutes and Wales would have likely snatched it. Wales outscored England three tries to one and England’s attack will concern Eddie Jones.
They play Ireland and France next and scoring opportunities will be few and far between.
England v Wales; hosts find a way to Win
England were far from perfect but they found a way to hold on and get the job done. As Sir Clive Woodward said in the analysis, treat this as a World Cup Quarter-Final, win and look forward to the Irish in the Semi-Final. They were creaking badly with twenty minutes to go, 17-12 up but Wales had all the momentum. England’s veterans then stepped up, Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes in particular. Jack Nowell jackled at the breakdown crucially to allow England to stretch further ahead.
World Cup triumphs are rarely pretty and sometimes winning ugly is needed. Twickenham on Saturday was one such occasion where England will take a lot of confidence from. Wales will be so frustrated with their first-half performance given their brilliant second-half fightback. Wales stayed in the fight despite being completely dominated by England in the first half. Led by Tomos Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Alex Cuthbert, Wales’ heroic defence gave them the belief that they could claw back a 17-0 deficit. It so nearly ended in one of the great Six Nations comebacks.
Dombrandt and Smith a special duo
Alex Dombrandt stepped up to the intensity of a good old fashioned Six Nations test match. He was tireless throughout and never far from the action. Dombrandt skill levels were there for everyone to see, including a sumptuous pick up from a bouncing high ball in the first half. He took his try well, got another turnover and offered himself up as a key ball carrier, the latter a staple requirement for Jones at number eight. There will come a time when we see Dombrandt properly unleash, especially with his best mate Marcus Smith close in attendance.
Marcus Smith was again excellent in an England shirt. England v Wales is the kind of test match where he had to put away some of his attacking content and graft. But he never shirked away from probing the Welsh defence and was almost always correct in his decision-making. Smith will need to muscle up a wee bit in defence as Nick Tompkins and the Welsh backrowers enjoyed some easy yards down his channel – especially in the second half. That will come, let’s enjoy Marcus Smith’s rise to the international stage. He has been outstanding in the fly-half jumper and he needs his fellow backs to get on his wavelength.
Concerns on the set-piece; England v Wales
Matt Proudfoot and Richard Cockerill, England’s forwards’ coaches will be anxiously looking over the tapes on Monday. Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge had an uncomfortable time of it in the scrums. Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis were outstanding for Wales. Will Stuart and Joe Marler did a good job of stabilising things later in the second half which will be a relief for Eddie Jones. The lineout from both sides was also a mess on what was a scrappy encounter despite the thrilling tension of the match.
With a resurgent Ireland up next at Twickenham and then a huge pack in the form of the French to finish – England’s front row have a lot to do. There may be a temptation for Jones to start Joe Marler against the Irish to shore up England’s scrum from the beginning. He may also bring back Joe Launchbury to partner Maro Itoje given how good Launchbury is in the ruck and maul.
How to solve England’s attack?
England’s attack has struggled throughout the tournament and against Wales it was little better. The absence of Manu Tuilagi was highlighted by a lack of punch in the midfield which could not take advantage of some promising surges by the forwards. Henry Slade and Elliott Daly are fine players but as a centre partnership, they are too similar. Wales looked far more threatening out-wide than England did and had more line-breaks than their counterparts. Henry Slade works so well beside Tuilagi and in the 13 jersey where he can use his silky skills more often. If Tuilagi is not fit for Ireland which is likely it might be that Gloucester’s Mark Atkinson comes back to offer a bit more ballast.
On the plus side, Harry Randall’s performance will hearten Jones and England supporters with an all-action first forty minutes. Randall starting above record-holder Ben Youngs raised a few eyebrows but he justified his selection and is an exciting prospect for England. Freddie Steward deserves a mention for his excellence in the air against Wales, and hopefully, we will see more of his running game against Ireland.
England’s set-piece should be under threat from Ireland
Ireland will be another step up for this young England team, even though they have the comforts of Twickenham to draw upon. Ireland’s excellence at the breakdown and a Leinster-dominated pack will challenge England’s faltering set-piece. Eddie Jones’s desire to put pace on England’s game-plan is a positive move but they have to have a base to go from. Wales challenged England’s scrum and line-out throughout on Saturday. Ireland’s pack is Leinster-made with a tasty blend of experience and youthful endeavour. England have to get their basics right first to earn the right to throw the ball around.
Eddie Jones will be monitoring the health of Manu Tuilagi with keen interest. If Tuilagi can fit in beside Henry Slade, England will have their key man back to provide that thrust through the middle. Jones will need him given that Ireland will have Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki to pick from.
England have much to work on but they will improve against Ireland and they have kept their tournament hopes alive.
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