Welsh rugby had already endured the roughest week in its history and a first English win in Cardiff since 2017 has duly topped it off. Not that England will care how their neighbours are feeling. This was a dogfight between two desperate teams, both committed to emerging victorious by whatever means available, and a try count of three to one in the visitors’ favour was ultimately the game’s second-most telling statistic.
Just five minutes remained when Ollie Lawrence dived gleefully over in the left corner to seal an outcome that will feel sweetest in the English dressing room. All too often it was a case of England’s defence standing firm against Wales’s mostly blunt attacking efforts in a contest that rarely hit any great heights of subtlety or sophistication. That said, England will see this as another step forward in their journey under Steve Borthwick and one which, on paper at least, keeps them in this season’s title race.
Lawrence also had every right to be thrilled, having fought his way back from the despair of his financially-stricken home club, Worcester Warriors, being ejected from the Premiership. Borthwick’s side were equally indebted to tries from Anthony Watson and Kyle Sinckler as well as a masterful man of the match performance under the high ball by the full-back Freddie Steward. On a day when Owen Farrell saw of his four kicks go astray, Wales’s day could have ended up being even worse.
The overnight confirmation that south Wales had been shaken by its strongest earthquake for five years certainly felt like neat timing. Pretty much everything in Welsh rugby currently feels unstable and the national team has not kicked off a championship with three straight losses since 2007. Were there slightly more pitchside flame throwers than usual or was this just annother bonfire of WRU vanities? Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, either way, has rarely been sung with more feeling in recent times.
Would that translate into something tangible under a clear blue late-afternoon sky? Not in the final analysis. Passion is all very well but precision matters, too. England started better and were already 8-0 up after 18 minutes, courtesy of a sharp try in the left corner by Watson, back in England’s XV for the first time in two years. What was equally striking was the crispness of the first-phase starter play that preceded it. Max Malins made the first slicing incision and by the time Alex Dombrandt fed the flying Watson the home defenders had long since been playing a forlorn game of catch-up.
A Leigh Halfpenny penalty, though, trimmed the deficit as the contest settled into more of a cat-and-mouse phase. Wales could have had another three points had Tomos Williams not settled for a quick tap which looked momentarily promising but ultimately ended up down a cul-de-sac. When the ball was not being ping-ponged in the air between the two halves, England’s rush defence was looking more cohesive and organised after two more weeks in each other’s company.
Wales badly needed a spark from somewhere, perhaps from the speedy Louis Rees-Zammit or Mason Grady, their hefty new cap in midfield. There are more shopping opportunities inside Cardiff’s St David’s Centre but Grady, all 6ft 5in and 17 stone of him, looks almost as massive up close. It is hard to conjure much, though, when the ball is 50ft up in the sky and the marauding Ollies, Chessum and Lawrence, are charging straight at you.
Nor were England dishing out any freebies, conceding just six penalties in the entire game. Wales had occasional bright moments but could sustain very little. Prior to the game, to borrow James Hook’s splendid radio description, the home captain, Ken Owens, appeared in need of a hot chocolate and some Calpol after a draining week, and there was scant on-field respite available.
Momentarily, though, the dragon began to stir. The referee started to take slightly more notice of home complaints that Ellis Genge was illegally hinging opposite Francis and twice England found themselves clinging on in their own 22. On both occasions, however, Wales could not find the killer touch, with Lewis Ludlam’s fine turnover in the shadow of his own posts just before the interval a perfect example of England’s defensive appetite.
England, according to the official stats, spent only 39 first half seconds in the Welsh 22 but had no obvious reason to panic back in the dressing room. Any complacency, however, swiftly evaporated when Rees-Zammit pounced on an attempted pass by Malins to scoot 50 metres for a raucously received home try.
Halfpenny’s conversion put his side in front for the first and only time but England, to their credit, responded within three minutes when Sinckler was adjudged to have grounded the ball beneath a heap of bodies despite Justin Tipuric’s best efforts to hold him up. Farrell’s conversion made it 15-10 and, for the first time, the strains of Sweet Chariot drifted around this steep-sided stadium.
It set up the taut final half hour that had always seemed likely. If nothing else this Six Nations has been relentlessly competitive even if neither of these two sides, for all their endeavour, are currently world-beaters. The game just needed a signature moment, something to elevate it in the memory. If you were Welsh it cried out for a dramatic Scott Gibbs intervention or a Gavin Henson matchwinner. Instead it ended up with Lawrence’s leap and lashings of English satisfaction.