Round 3 saw the 2 unbeaten teams of the tournament take each other on as England travelled to the Principality Stadium to take on Wales. After a couple of strong England performances and iffy outings for Wales, the Welsh put in a great defensive performance and though England led 3-10 at half time through a Tom Curry try, they took over in the second half and two late tries from Cory Hill and Josh Adams gave them a 21-13 victory.
A step back
After two weeks of great performances, England took a huge step back against Wales. Their kicking game has been strong in the first 2 games, but that was certainly helped by first Robbie Henshaw at fullback, then France playing a winger at fullback and centres on both wings. Against Wales, they were up against Liam Williams at 15 – who often finds himself playing on the wing but is a top quality fullback – with George North and Josh Adams on the wings. This meant that they were positioned better to deal with the kicks, while they also picked up on England’s tendency for the man competing in the air to often try slapping the ball back towards his team rather than taking it on the full and adapted to it by having players like Josh Navidi and Cory Hill getting in position to win the ball when it was slapped back and also then being in position to secure the ball at the ruck if their man won the ball in the air.
With the kicking game not working as well, England needed to change their strategy, but while they played a different plan to the last 2 weeks, it was not a positive change. In the first 2 weeks, we would frequently hear the commentators calling out the names of Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, Jonny May, Elliot Daly and whoever was starting on the other wing as these players were frequently on the ball, due to England really varying their attack. This week, those names were barely mentioned as the attacks generally consisted of crash balls through the forwards and then a kick from Youngs or Farrell. The wider players still looked dangerous when they were used, but they rarely were and that one-dimensional attack made it easier for the Welsh to defend and put pressure on, leading to both Farrell and Youngs having poor days with the boot.
Things clearly weren’t going right for them in the second half and yet Eddie Jones seemed reluctant to make changes in the backs, Dan Robson left on the bench once again along with George Ford (if Jones doesn’t think he can positively impact the game from that place then he needs to be swapped for Danny Cipriani!), while I doubt Joe Cokanasiga would have come on if it wasn’t for Jonny May’s head injury.
England’s bonus points have left them in a strong position to still win the tournament (assuming Wales slip up against Scotland or Ireland), but they need to get their performance back to the level of the Ireland and France matches or they could start to struggle again.
I must admit that I was surprised at the decision to start Gareth Anscombe over Dan Biggar for this match. While I think Anscombe brings more to the team, Biggar is probably the better player defensively and has the more reliable kicking game, so I thought he would have matched up better against England.
While Anscombe wasn’t perfect, he put in an assured performance that kept the England defence going. When Biggar came on to replace him with 20 minutes left, he continued to vary the game, but his kicking game began to cause England real problems and it appeared to give his teammates confidence and help them improve their own individual kicking games, especially Gareth Davies, who usually struggles to get his kicks right. It was Biggar spreading the ball wide to George North, then coming into the scrum half position at the ruck to keep the speed of ball up and picking up Cory Hill’s superb line that resulted in the go-ahead try, while his first phase cross-kick was inch-perfect for Josh Adams to beat Daly in the air to score the second try and confirm the victory.
This close to the World Cup, Wales have 2 wonderful options at fly half (with Rhys Patchell, Rhys Priestland and Jarrod Evans providing great depth behind them) and if they can work together to improve each other’s weaknesses and keep each other playing at their best every week, then Wales are going to be tough to overcome.
A young star
Sam Underhill’s injury may have given Tom Curry a chance that he will never look back on. Despite being only 20 years old and having just a few caps to his name, Underhill’s injury and those of some more experienced back rowers opened the door for Tom Curry to take the number 7 shirt for England in this tournament and it doesn’t look like he has any intention of giving it back!
While he may have given away a couple of penalties in the tournament, he has been a nightmare for opposition teams at the breakdown, while his 25 tackles completed was the most of any player in the match. As he is growing into his role, he also appears to be taking a larger role in the attack, with his 24 metres made off of 7 carries the 3rd most of any forward in this match, behind Billy Vunipola (51m from 20 carries) and Ross Moriarty (35m from 20 carries).
Such have been his performances, I would be shocked if Eddie Jones were to drop him when other options are available and at just 20 years old, he has the potential to go on to be an England great, feature in 3 World Cups and captain the country in the future. That may sound like a bold prediction for someone with just a few caps, but his age means that he is still some years from his best and that experience will put him in prime position for a leadership role as the newer faces begin to appear following this World Cup campaign.