With France’s win over Scotland confirmed, today’s Six Nations action moved to Twickenham, which would play host to England’s match against Wales. England’s build-up was disrupted by an injury to Manu Tuilagi following the initial naming of the squad, but they still found themselves too strong for the Welsh in the early stages, with a series of penalties allowing Marcus Smith to kick them into a 6-0 lead in the opening 5 minutes. The Welsh grew into the game and after a clever kick from Nick Tompkins put the Welsh deep in the English 22, they found themselves with a lineout 5m out, but inaccuracies cost them. England hit back from this warning and when Charlie Ewels was held up over the line, Liam Williams was sent to the sin bin for cynically playing the ball in the ruck. However the 14 men held out with a scrum penalty allowing them to clear their lines as referee Mike Adamson found himself out of his depth, and England were forced to settle for 2 more penalties from Smith for a 12-0 halftime lead.
In the last round, I noted how the Welsh lineout had finally began to sort itself out and avoid being a liability. Well it seems that praise came too early as Elias struggled to connect with his men throughout the game, and just minutes after the break and with a lineout in his own 22, he overthrew his entire pack (though it must be noted that nobody was even lifted, so it may not have all been his fault) and the ball went straight to Alex Dombrandt, who went over for his first Test try. The Welsh attack looked more cohesive in this half, and when they finally got some possession in the England 22, a clever flat pass from the back of a ruck by Tomos Williams sent Josh Adams over in the corner. What had been a 17-0 lead for England suddenly looked fragile, and after a series of penalties allowed Wales more time deep in the English 22, Topkins went over just after the hour and Dan Biggar converted to cut the lead to 5. 2 penalties from Smith gave England some breathing room but they couldn’t quite kill off the game, and when Kieran Hardy went over from a quick-tap penalty in the 80ᵗʰ minute, Biggar managed to take a quick drop goal conversion to bring the score to 23-19 but crucially give Wales one final chance to play. Of course they would need to go the length, but what looked the unlikeliest of victories suddenly became more realistic as England captain Courtney Lawes was penalised for a deliberate knock-on. However referee Adamson’s officiating style would be called questionable at best and though he awarded the penalty, he chose not to send Lawes to the bin, and though Wales found themselves in the English half, they were unable to penetrate the 15-man English defence and Maro Itoje won a crucial turnover to secure victory for England.
Plenty has been said about Marcus Smith over the last couple of weeks, but today was another great example at just how dangerous he is with ball in hand.
The young Harlequins fly half repeatedly took the ball to the line, but did a great job of varying his play between playing the ball off to a forward to truck it up and running with it himself. This variety is crucial. If he plays the ball off every time, the defence can adapt to this and zero in on the forward,whereas if he runs, they know that they have to commit to him. However by varying it up, it forces the defender to make a decision as to whether they commit to Smith or the forward runner. And the moment the defender makes up their mind and commits one way or the other, Smith can strike by doing the opposite.
Granted, England were outscored 3 tries to 1 today, and that try was gifted to them by the Welsh, but that was not on Smith’s play. With such a lightweight back line outside of him, he was forced to rely on forward runners, whereas the option of a more physical back (Tuilagi may be out but Mark Atkinson and Dan Kelly were both playing in the Premiership today) would have added an extra dimension to the attack and given the defence a third option to consider.
Wales should consider this one that got away from them. Had they turned up in the first half, or had their lineout been of Test rugby standard, they could have won this.
The performance in the first half was the real killer. There was a clear tactic from the off to get the ball out to the wide men as soon as possible, and they certainly had some success out wide, with Alex Cuthbert carrying for 137 metres. The issue however was that there was not enough organisation to deal with these breaks and half-breaks. Too often the ball carrier would find themselves isolated once the were stopped, gifting England possession, territory, while 2 of Marcus Smith’s penalties came from Cuthbert holding on as support failed to get to him soon enough—those 6 points alone would have been enough to change the result. They still weren’t perfect in the second half, but they were much better organised. And with that, they were able to build phases in the England 22 and force their way over their tries.
A tactic of getting it wide as quick as possible puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the team to keep up with the back 3, who are often the fastest men on the pitch. Will Wales look to stick with this game plan in 2 weeks’ time? Or was this a plan to try (and fail) to keep the ball away from the English pack?