Ambitious England still set the bar in Europe despite World Cup hangover


TWICKENHAM, London — Through all the talk of coronavirus, through the postponements and cancellations, the rumours of closed doors games and the doubts and delay and uncertainty, there was palpable relief at Twickenham to finally see men getting far closer to each other than the “no handshakes” rule would allow.

This match against Wales was England’s final game in this year’s Six Nations for the foreseeable future — it could even be their last of the international season — after their finale against Italy was postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak. For now, there is no next week. It was a “leave it all on the field” kind of affair for a side still chasing the Six Nations trophy. In a way, England delivered.

Eddie Jones’ side handed Wales their third successive defeat and kept themselves in contention to win this year’s championship through a display that showed resilience, ambition and an ability to get the job done even when they are not at their absolute best. Again, England were unable to put together a performance that resembled their stunning World Cup semifinal victory over New Zealand. But they have taken the Triple Crown out of Welsh hands. For that, Jones seemed pleased, but there is little chance that he was telling the truth when he said he believed that England are better now than they were in Japan.

Prior to this year’s Six Nations, Jones challenged his side to become the greatest team in world rugby. In doing so, he challenged himself and his own ambitions, too. At Twickenham on Saturday, England pledged to show that their sloppy and disappointing opening-game defeat to France was just a blip, that they are still the team to beat, even if the Six Nations table refuses to show it.

England displayed a horrible first half in Paris — those 40 minutes look likely to cost them the tournament — but that was not about to happen again on Saturday. England’s best performances usually bring a try in the opening exchanges. This time around, it was a wonderful pass from Tom Curry to Anthony Watson, making his first start since the World Cup final following a calf injury, that gave them a lead after four minutes.

But England could not kick on — they are not yet back to their full best since returning from Japan with heavy hearts. There was a largely forgettable lull after that Watson try, aside from a nicely worked try for Elliot Daly around the half-hour mark, but the final exchanges of the half made interesting viewing. Leading 20-6, England opted not to kick the ball into touch and end the half, but instead attacked with intent, hoping to take a 21-point lead into the break. It backfired — Wales ended up kicking a penalty to cut the deficit to 11 — but it is only teams with that kind of ambition in these kinds of games that are going to threaten the All Blacks and the best of the rest in the long run.

That said, they will have to learn from one what followed at the start of the second half, as Wales scored one of the more ridiculous and audacious tries in this or any other Six Nations. Straight from kick-off, they passed, skipped and side-stepped their way to a length-of-the-field score with barely a fingernail laid on a Welsh jersey before Justin Tipuric touched down under the posts. Suddenly, it was 20-16 and memories of Wales’ last victory at Twickenham – a stirring fightback in the 2015 Rugby World Cup pool phase that all but ended England’s home campaign – came flooding back.

Back then, it was Warren Gatland who was in charge. His successor, Wayne Pivac, needs a big win to kick his own tenure into life and emulating Gatland’s own achievement of winning his first match at Twickenham (Gatland did so in 2008) would have been the perfect tonic. Instead, it was a measure of England’s resilience that they knuckled down and took the game out of reach once more. As they have long shown under Jones, England displayed again their ability to score timely tries and keep the scoreboard ticking over. Jones later described his side’s response as an “outstanding emotional recovery”.

England kickers George Ford and Owen Farrell nullified much of the Welsh momentum, dispatching a penalty each in the second half before Manu Tuilagi put the game out of sight with England’s third try of the match. Dan Biggar and Tipuric each scored tries in the final two minutes, but that came when England were down to 13 men.

In truth, such numeric disadvantage was a long time coming. There were times throughout when the game threatened to boil over. Farrell struck George North in the chest while he was down in the first half, while Joe Marler made Alun Wyn Jones wish he’d just opted for a handshake with a cheeky pull of the Welsh captain’s, ahem, shorts. It all got a bit testy and just about every shirt, red or white, was pushing and shoving.

Tensions were raised again at the end as Tuilagi received a red card for dangerously launching his shoulder into North’s head, a decision that Jones later called “rubbish”, but which applied the letter of the law exactly as it should. It was at least heartening to see Tuilagi apologise to North on his way off the field, and North be in a fit enough state to accept it.

A flawed, tetchy but ultimately successful afternoon for England in the end, something that probably could be said for their campaign on the whole as it goes on an uncertain hiatus. Whether their match against Italy ever takes place is one thing, but Eddie Jones and England have their sights set on much bigger goals and it’s on the rest of Europe to keep pace.

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