England are yet to find their best form in 2017 but, boy, are they making themselves into a phenomenally hard team to beat under the guidance of Eddie Jones. From the opening round last weekend, the rugby certainly went up a few levels yesterday and so did the decibels in the Millennium Stadium – even with the roof open the noise is deafening. It really is a cathedral of rugby.
Despite the result, a lot of credit must go to Wales for their performance – and the stand-in coach Rob Howley for getting them to expand their repertoire and play attacking rugby. The Liam Williams try was just sensational play – a world class score that any nation would be proud of. This really was one of those Tests that could have gone either way, with both sides being able to lay a valid claim for the victory.
The key difference for England again was their bench, or the finishers, as Jones calls them.
Throughout Jones’ reign, without fail, at least three of the eight substitutes have come on to have a huge impact on the team’s performance. Yesterday it was the earlier than usual arrival of Jamie George at hooker for captain Dylan Hartley which seemed to swing the tie back in England’s favour.
Momentum is talked about a lot in top level sport and this game epitomised how it changes direction on the back of just one play, whether it be a huge tackle, turnover, knock-on or as with yesterday, an errant kick.
The sloppy late clearance from outside-centre Jonathan Davies, below, who seemingly still had the management directive in his head not to kick to touch, gifted the ball to George Ford, who set up the counter for Elliot Daly’s winner. It was a poor mistake, made worse by the fact Dan Biggar was standing right next to him and surely would have made a better fist of it with his right boot.
But the thing with this England team, compared to Wales, is that they are now becoming far more clinical when the opportunities present themselves.
The way Ford and Owen Farrell combined to free Daly was as crisp a display of passing as we’ve seen recently from England. The final pass from Farrell was a peach as it gave Daly the arcing line to gas Alex Cuthbert on the outside. We know Daly is fast but he showed just how fast by absolutely skinning Cuthbert for a fabulous try.
England are developing that mental toughness that Jones demanded when he took over, a toughness that so far has not allowed them to finish second best.
Wales are to be commended for the way they took it to England. Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty enjoyed big games in the back row and it was only when James Haskell came on that England seemed to gain more parity in the close exchanges. Danny Care and Ben Te’o were the other replacements who really gave England direction.
While Te’o was the match-winner last week, yesterday he was used more as the battering ram and asked Wales more questions in midfield than they had been posed in the first half. And Care’s sniping runs and urgency always up the tempo.
In the build-up to England’s first try, throughout the 26 phases that led to the score, Wales looked a bit under clubbed up front. But thereafter they began to dominate the scrums and compete well at the lineout – so much so they had the confidence to turn down kicks at goal in preference of a set-piece.
They are embracing Howley’s have-a-go style and are finally coming to terms with the fact they must be able to score at least three tries a game to have a sniff of making the World Cup final in three years’ time. To do that they must also have sublime fitness, something that has improved again recently after dropping from the levels we became accustomed to when they were winning Grand Slams.
Another key factor in their performance yesterday was the physicality in the tackle. While England enjoyed greater territory and possession, Wales made sure they made their presence felt in defence – Moriarty’s hit on Farrell the best of the lot. It really did sum up the ferocity of this Test match.
While Jones may be tempted to tweak a few players to keep players on their toes, one or two look desperately short of game time – the captain Dylan Hartley, especially. George came on 15 minutes sooner than usual and Hartley needs game time to get back to where he was pre-injury.
The dynamic between starters and finishers seems to be working well and although I would like to see more of Te’o, so far it works with him coming on as an impact player and I can see that staying the same for the trip to Rome in a fortnight.
A backline of Farrell at 10, Te’o 12 and Daly 13 would certainly offer a different threat for England, but while the chariot rolls on I see Eddie sticking with the tried and tested next time out.