This was almost a Grand Slam final in its own right. Wales, a point to prove after a stuttering win over Italy. England, unbeaten in 15 games and current holders of the 6 Nations Grand Slam title. The stage was set for the showdown that would have enormous bearings on the winners of the title.
George North being ruled out merely hours before the game began was enough of a setback, and Alex Cuthbert came in from the cold with just as much of a point to prove as the rest of the XV.
By contrast, England were cantering. They overcame the French through gutsy play and big packing down, despite missing Billy Vunipola at number 8. Elliot Daly was beginning to prove himself on the wing and Nathan Hughes as a one man tank caused sharp problems for France and George Fords ball handling scythed through the defences at times.
The game began, and Wales had improved enormously. The defence, which was always the more reliable of their style of play, was as strong as ever. The real brilliance came in the attack. Frantic though it may have been, the Welsh passing was speedy, the dictation of the ball by half back duo Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar meant progression up the field was not steady, but rapid. England were on the back foot.
But for all the improvements in the England half, Wales ultimately fell short. They had their chances, and were made to pay for some sloppy errors. Some terrific interplay between Webb and Liam Williams on the left wing saw Webb scamper into the 22, but his refusal to go down under a tackle saw his lay off to the rushing Biggar go forward.
A marvellous interception from Biggar on his own line then saw him in a breakout foot race with England’s winger Daly, the Whites matchwinner prevailing with a slide tackle on a grubbered ball within feet of the try line.
Eddie Jones claimed England’s grit won them this battle at the Principlaity Stadium. His bench can attribute much of this ‘grit’ than the starting XV, that may surely serve as a wake up call to the starters. Notably the introductions of Jamie George and James Haskell to combat the brutal back row of Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Ross Moriarty paid dividends.
George Ford and Ben Youngs were short of ideas at the half back points, their play often sending the ball to number 8 Nathan Hughes, a one man wrecking ball who himself failed to make his possession pay off.
Yet Jones won out against opposite number Rob Howley. He is correct, England’s grit won them out on a day when the latter shot himself in the foot with two contentious substitutions. The orchestral Webb was taken off after an hour for Gareth Davies just as Wales typical ‘purples patch’ of the final 15 minutes was incoming. Secondly; the introduction of Taulupe Faleteau at number 8 for Moriarty. A move that in any other game would have bore fruit for the Dragons, but with Faleteau rusty after injury amidst Moriarty’s brilliance, coach Jones took full advantage.
They have no more get-out-of-jail-free cards, as Jones says. He needs to address the issue of his backs, and enliven players like Maro Itoje, who seemed disjointed and lacked his sniping aggression, plus his wings simply weren’t pentrating enough. Daly, to his credit, got the winning try after another Wales mistake, but Jack Nowell’s insistence on running infield when going to thetouchline seemed the more obvious option only saw him brought down by the Welsh forwards time after time.
Yet the mark of being champions is that they are not known when they are beaten. They were not put away by Wales when they should have been, and were at least consistent in their attacking attempts, if not effective. Jones has issues to resolve, but his team are in charge of the Six Nations race and, for now, that is fine.