England ensure Wales end week of woe with defeat in scrappy Six Nations clash
England posted a first statement win of the Steve Borthwick era as they heaped further misery on Wales with a 20-10 victory in Cardiff.
England’s success – only a third in the Welsh capital from their last eight visits – kept alive their nominal Six Nations title hopes – although tournament heavyweights France and Ireland now loom large.
It might not have been pretty, but tries from wing Anthony Watson, prop Kyle Sinckler and centre Ollie Lawrence underpinned a confidence-building victory on the road.
Owen Farrell landed a penalty and conversion – he also missed four kicks at goal – as England had enough in the tank to claim a first Principality Stadium triumph for six years.
Wales briefly led early in the second half through wing Louis Rees-Zammit’s interception try, converted by full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who also kicked a penalty, but a build-up that was engulfed by the threat of Wales players going on strike, which was only averted 72 hours before kick-off, ended with a third successive tournament loss.
It was the first time for 16 years that Wales had been toppled in their first three Six Nations fixtures, and a possible wooden spoon decider against Italy in Rome on March 11 now beckons.
Wales’ regional rugby financial issues remain far from being resolved, yet a clash that almost did not happen could prove an important stepping stone in England’s development under head coach Borthwick as they recorded their biggest away victory over Wales since 2003.
England came under immediate pressure when skipper Farrell had an attempted defensive clearance charged down by Wales No 8 Taulupe Faletau, but the visitors cleared before their opponents could arrive in sufficient numbers.
Wayward kicking was a theme of the opening 10 minutes from both sides, yet England showed signs of settling as Farrell kicked a 48-metre penalty to nudge his team ahead.
Wales showed plenty of intent, with Test debutant Mason Grady prominent, but they were undone by a slick England move after 19 minutes.
Wing Max Malins broke Wales’ initial defensive cover, before quickly recycled possession was worked wide and Watson finished impressively after collecting number eight Alex Dombrandt’s pass.
Farrell’s touchline conversion attempt hit the post, then Wales opened their account when Halfpenny landed an angled penalty and England led 8-3 early in the second quarter.
Wales persisted with aerial tactics, yet such an approach was meat and drink for England as Malins and full-back Freddie Steward dealt comfortably with the bombardment.
Farrell drifted a long-range penalty wide eight minutes before half-time, but England continued to dominate territory as Wales huffed and puffed, although creating nothing in terms of a clear-cut attacking chance.
Wales finally stirred when Rees-Zammit made a threatening half-break that took him inside England’s 22, only for Steward to halt his progress before the home side conceded another penalty and Farrell cleared.
Wales then attacked again, yet they were unable to capitalise on promising build-up play and England took a five-point lead into the interval.
But it took Wales just 45 seconds of the second period to wipe out that deficit as Rees-Zammit intercepted Malins’ pass and sprinted 50 metres for an opportunist try that Halfpenny converted.
Rees-Zammit’s ninth touchdown in 23 Tests underlined his finishing ability, yet it took England just five minutes to recapture the initiative.
Prop Ellis Genge ran aggressively into the heart of Wales’ defence and the England forwards did not require a second invitation to set up camp, with Sinckler crashing over from close range and Farrell converting.
The game had suddenly burst into life and Wales head coach Warren Gatland made his first changes as Biggar replaced Owen Williams and Saracens centre Nick Tompkins took over from Josh Adams, with Test debutant Mason Grady moving to the wing.
Another Farrell penalty miss meant England could not pull away and the final quarter was inevitably frantic as both teams went for broke.
But England had the final say, with Lawrence crossing for a try six minutes from time to leave them home and dry.