England 23-19 Wales: Ben Youngs comes on to break the all-time caps record for the men’s team during victory
Maro Itoje tumbled out of the breakdown and came up with the ball, and finally it was over. This was not a game for the rugby aesthete, nor truly one for the rugby purist, but eventually a competitive Six Nations game broke down after the first half errata. Eventually, it was England and Itoje who clung on to hold off a double Welsh fightback and keep faint title hopes alive in a messy affair.
This had been billed as knockout rugby but the early rounds consisted of squabbles and sloppy punches thrown against the ropes. It was a first half played in bits and pieces, rather stumbling across the broken bric-a-brac of scruffy breakdowns and slapdash set-pieces, with scrums contested in the abstract as both front rows did everything they could except drive legally, often before the ball could be put in.
This meant that a Twickenham crowd afforded a first Six Nations viewing since the last time these two teams met here never really had reason to rise to their feet. Shorn of Manu Tuilagi just eight hours after naming the centre among a Six Nations side for the first time since that fixture two years ago, Eddie Jones promoted Elliot Daly from the bench with Joe Marchant hastily called in to replace him among the substitutes after a single day of Friday training – team news belatedly confirmed little less than an hour before kick-off.
There were fleeting glimpses from both sides in attack, and though Alex Cuthbert looked a danger when afforded space and time with ball in hand, it was more often than not England playing with definite adventure and accuracy. With Harry Randall and Marcus Smith setting a quick tempo and England’s forward runners on sharp angles, the collision dominance allowed England to make regular advances into the Welsh half, and Smith’s right boot pushed the hosts into a 6-0 advantage in the opening exchanges.
It was then time for the first interminable passage of set-piece blunder. Nick Tompkins’s canny boot through earnt Wales a five-metre scrum, but neither with the shove nor with the lineout that followed could they force their way through – Ryan Elias’s hands evading a set-piece routine of clunky moving parts that rather scraped against one another, allowing England to clear.
That was the sum total of Wales’s first-half forays deep into English territory, with Dan Biggar increasingly annoyed by the efforts of the home side to stall Welsh ball at the breakdown. The captain was in the ear of Mike Adamson throughout, like a mosquito schooled on the finer points of the latching law, at one point brazenly offering to aid the referee with his officiating.
In patches, England played with depth and speed and were able to create problems for the visiting defence. If not for one moment of particular breakdown cynicism from Liam Williams after Charlie Ewels was dragged down a foot out, England’s outside backs could have made the most leisurely of passage into the left corner, with Williams duly sent for the sin bin. As was becoming the theme, a scrum mishap ended England’s hopes of immediately capitalising.
Another strike from Smith’s boot, atoning for an earlier straightforward miss, kept England ticking over, and they had further chance to press home their advantage when Henry Slade’s magnificent left-footed punt scuttled over the touchline five metres out, utilising the 50:22 law to perfection. Taulupe Faletau’s pilfering hands ensured that Wales would again hold out.
The half ended with England straining Welsh sinews and synapses with a succession of varied, muscular movements. Eventually, another penalty drawn, and Smith sent the players down the tunnel with England’s lead stretched to 12-0 but the home side struggling to enliven as they would have liked.
Three minutes after the players re-emerged, cause for Twickenham to roar. An errant throw from Elias flew too far and Alex Dombrandt could hardly believe his fortune, the number eight stepping out of a tackle and having just long enough of a reach to ground before the covering Welsh defenders could force the ball from him.
That forced Wales into the game for the first time since the opening quarter. After one brilliant passage of phase play, a three-player overlap was wasted by a tight five forward’s oblivious charge. On their next 22 entry, the backs ensured the chance would no go awry – Tomos Williams threading a flat pass across the faces of the England defence and a stooping Josh Adams able to sprint in.
Biggar’s conversion sailed by, but Wales were at the dance. A gambol down the left advanced them again into the England 22 and, after the forwards had inched close, the Wales fly-half found Tompkins arriving on his shoulder. Suddenly the lead had been narrowed to five, with an outstanding Faletau increasingly influential.
For England, that was the cue to send for the history-maker, with Ben Youngs winning cap number 115 to pass Jason Leonard as the most-capped English male player of all time. Soon after, the replacement scrum-half somehow got across to force Cuthbert to tumble, with Jack Nowell picking through the carcass to force the holding-on penalty; Smith re-established a two-score advantage from the tee.
Another followed three minutes later, and England’s confidence again began to swell. Freddie Stewards twice took to the skies in quick succession to claim troublesome up-and-unders, and England’s bench regenerated the defensive line-speed that had largely shut down Wales’s attack before the break. Joe Marler had replaced the irrepressible Ellis Genge and drew a scrum penalty to let more time tick by, and then was the grateful recipient of a lineout ricochet as Wales tried to launch an assault from the right.
There was time enough to threaten a late twist, with Kieran Hardy tapping sharply and evading retreating English defenders to score by the post. And then, more drama – Courtney Lawes’s outstretched hand tipping Tompkins’s fizzed pass away from its intended target, and Wales were able to enter the England half.
The clock kept on ticking deep into the red, but at the last it was Itoje on a day of a jackal who emerged legally from a ruck with the ball. Spring blooming for these new England seedlings this may not have been but they remain, just about, alive in this Six Nations with Ireland and France to come.