England secured the Six Nations Triple Crown with their third consecutive victory despite Manu Tuilagi seeing red at Twickenham, with the 33-30 win over rivals Wales giving them a chance of championship glory whenever this tournament comes to an end.
Eddie Jones’s side should be heading to Rome next weekend with hopes of a third Six Nations championship under the Australian’s tenure, but the coronavirus outbreak means that England will not get the chance to face Italy until much later in the year, and certainly not before the summer. By the time they run out at the Stadio Olimpico, whenever that may be, France could well be Grand Slam champions.
However, that will matter little thanks to this victory, which in the end saw the hosts finish the game with 13 men and, had there been two more minutes, almost certain defeat. First-half tries from Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly sandwiched two penalties from Leigh Halfpenny, and although an additional effort from Dan Biggar on the stroke of half-time kept Wales in touch, Owen Farrell’s two penalties meant that England had a healthy 20-9 lead at the break.
Wales set the tone for the second half though from the get-go as Justin Tipuric finished a try-of-the-tournament contender just 23 seconds after the restart, with the visitors needing just four passes between as many men to silence Twickenham.
England got back on track as Farrell and George Ford both added a penalty apiece, before Tuilagi jogged over for their third score that looked to have put the game to bed for good. Yet as Wales refused to give up amid dogged England defending on their own line, replacement Ellis Genge was sent to the sin-bin for repeated team infringements, with Tuilagi going from hero to zero just three minutes later in seeing red for a dangerous shoulder charge to North’s head.
The two-man deficit opened the door for Biggar and Tipuric to score tries in the dying minutes, only for time to run out on them.
Jones played down the impact of England’s fast starts in mid-week on the basis that every side in Test rugby aims to cross the whitewash as soon as possible, but it remains the most obvious sign of his side’s ability to take control of a game. Rarely does it occur that England lose a grip on a match when they take the lead, although it was the reverse of this contest 12 months ago where that happened emphatically. Down to 13 in the final five minutes, it very nearly happened once again.
The sense of déjà vu was there from the opening minutes as England followed up their flying start over Ireland two weeks ago with the same again. The unstoppable force that is Tuilagi had already left his mark on Biggar when he did the same to George North after the wing failed to collect a poor pass, and the loose ball fell kindly to Itoje to counter. Perhaps mindful of what his second-row partner George Kruis did two weeks ago, Itoje elected against a kick ahead and instead carried into the 22 before Wales forced the ball into touch, and an inspired lineout move saw Itoje again deliver possession for Mark Wilson. The flanker immediately passed to Ben Youngs, whose inside ball was snapped up by the returning Watson to dance his way past Tomos Williams and evade his namesake Liam to score, with Farrell converting.
England’s fast start was curtailed almost immediately though with the loss of Jonny May in the eighth minute to a failed Head Injury Assessment, with the wing catching a loose elbow off Halfpenny as the two competed aerially. It meant that Henry Slade came on at full-back with Daly moving to the wing, and left Jones without any more outside-back replacements for the rest of the match.
Wales got themselves into the match off the back of it, with Biggar firing a perfect cross-field kick over that Daly knocked on in contest with Liam Williams, and the try looked a certainty following a strong run from Nick Tompkins as George North went for the line, only to knock on in the act of grounding the ball. However, after making the crucial tackle with Wilson, Farrell slapped North in celebration, triggering a lengthy flare-up that resulted in a stern ticking off for the England captain and three points for Halfpenny. Farrell soon made amends when Alun Wyn Jones was penalised for not rolling away, with the centre kicking his first penalty of the day to make in 10-3 in his side’s favour, only to then commit a high tackle in the same collision as Tuilagi from an initial offside position that not only gave Halfpenny another three points, but gave an early sign of their growing ill-discipline.
Wales were guilty of spurning the chances that came their way, with Hadleigh Parkes the latest to knock on when Wayne Pivac’s side entered the red zone, and their profligacy came back to haunt them when England scored their second. Youngs, who was enjoying his best display this Six Nations by a country mile on his 99th cap, fashioned to pass before going it alone and drawing a high tackle out of Ken Owens, giving them a free play that they would not waste. With the ball whipped out to Farrell, the captain combined with Ford to commit both North and Halfpenny, and the smart play gave Daly the space he needed to score in the corner.
Farrell added another penalty when Ross Moriarty collapsed a rolling maul, before Biggar rounded out the half with his first effort as a lazy pass from Tuilagi gave possession to Tompkins, with Itoje penalised for a high tackle to give England an 11-point advantage.
Wales needed to find the one key ingredient that was missing in the ability to turn their chances into points, but no one expected them to come flying out the blocks as they did in the second half. In 23 seconds, Tompkins has exchanged passes with Josh Navidi to break away from a deep kick-off, and with the ball being shifted on to Tomos Williams and then Tipuric, the flanker galloped clear of Slade to score between the uprights. Biggar’s conversion cut the lead to four points, and gave the contest the a jolt of life as fans continued to return to their seats stunned by what they had missed.
England steadied the ship impressively though, with Farrell adding an immediate penalty to reward strong breakdown work from Courtney Lawes, before Ford added three more points from a scrum penalty, with his captain receiving treatment.
Ten points to the good and with the replacements flooding on, England clinched what appeared to be the decisive try when Youngs broke away on his own, and in offloading the ball to Curry off the deck, the scrum-half injected the pace needed for the No 8 to pass on to Ford and then Watson to reach the five-metre line. Instead of resorting to mind-numbing one-out rugby, Ford took control and first utilised the dummy run of Farrell before doing the same with Slade to create space for Tuilagi to stroll over, and Twickenham sensed victory was coming their way as Farrell’s conversion ticked the score over to 33-16.
Yet Wales were not done yet, despite the overwhelming scoreline, and spent the last 15 minutes camped on the England try line. The hosts impressively held out by all means necessary, though that involved falling on the wrong side of Ben O’Keefe’s whistle and when a fourth infringement came, replacement Genge was sent to the sin-bin. With eight minutes remaining, it looked too little too late, and the Welsh were taking an unusually long time to make their decisions when time was against them. Little did they know it at the time, but it would prove costly.
When England looked to have held firm again in the 75th minute as North was barged into touch going for the line, O’Keefe refereed the sickening collision to the TMO Marius Jonker, suspecting that all was not well with North motionless on the turf. Slade’s initial tackle was textbook, but what followed from Tuilagi was an obvious shoulder charge to the head that resulted in a warranted red card, and for only the sixth time in history an England international saw red.
Down to 13 and all but out of gas, Wales went on the attack all guns blazing, and Biggar gave them faint hope as he took first-phase ball to carry over and score a try he would convert himself. The gap was down to 10 with two minutes to play, yet Wales need all of those 120 seconds and more to get back down the right end of the pitch as North ran clear, setting the platform for Tipuric to add his second in the corner. Biggar raced back for the conversion, only to be informed time was up, leaving them agonisingly short in the pursuit of an unlikely comeback.
England: Elliot Daly; Anthony Watson, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Jonny May (Henry Slade, 8); George Ford, Ben Youngs (Willi Heinz, 70); Joe Marler (Ellis Genge, 66), Jamie George (Luke Cowan-Dickie, 58), Kyle Sinckler (Will Stuart, 77); Maro Itoje, George Kruis (Joe Launchbury, 58); Courtney Lawes (Charlie Ewels, 66 (Joe Marler, 76)), Mark Wilson (Ben Earl, 76), Tom Curry.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny; George North, Nick Tompkins, Hadleigh Parkes, Liam Williams (Johnny McNicholl, 66); Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams (Rhys Webb, 46); Rob Evans (Rhys Carre, 58), Ken Owens (Ryan Elias, 75), Dillon Lewis (Leon Brown, h-t); Jake Ball (Aaron Shingler, 58), Alun Wyn Jones; Ross Moriarty (Taulupe Faletau, 58), Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi.