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This England win over Wales was built not on black-tie playmakers, but spit-and-sawdust grit

Mick Cleary
·5-min read
Owen Farrell of England celebrates winning a penalty - ANDY HOOPER
Owen Farrell of England celebrates winning a penalty - ANDY HOOPER

Wales 13 England 24

England had to dispense with the dinner jackets and don the overalls to put in a sweat-lined, industrial performance that took them past a gritty but limited Wales team who managed to produce their best display of the autumn despite falling to their seventh defeat in eight Tests.

Eddie Jones had bridled at the suggestion that his back line were no more than black-tie playmakers, gliding about to deliver a silver service. Instead there was a need to roll up sleeves in the kitchen sweat-box, dirty hands, jostle and bustle rather than preen and assume victory would follow. There was little polish or fluency. It was a spit-and-sawdust win, admirable in the context of taking unbeaten England through to the final of the Autumn Nations Cup next Sunday at Twickenham but unlikely to boost subscriber levels at broadcaster, Amazon Prime.

It was workmanlike rather than wondrous. Sam Underhill was in his element, toiling, lurking, spoiling. Billy Vunipola continued his return to form, while those at the coal-face in the scrum fully earned their post-match pie and beans.  Wales were munched in that phase of play. Fittingly England’s winning try came from a distance of two metres, Mako Vunipola touching down in the 51st minute for his first score in six years.

If Jones has worries about revealing his attacking hand too far ahead of the 2023 World Cup, then he will be immensely satisfied with the full camouflage mode that England are in. Even Miss Marple would struggle to find the missing attacking edge. If it was glamour and sweep you were seeking on a dreary Saturday afternoon, then this was not the viewing for you.   

The measure of Wales’ current plight is that they can be pleased with this display. The fans would have feared a hammering. They got a valiant, gutsy effort, Wales at least establishing themselves at base camp with the likes of England scaling heights way beyond their reach at the moment.       

The debate as to whether Test rugby has become boring with its choreographed reliance on kicking was not stilled by events here. England looked nifty and threatening on the few occasions they did trust their hands as shown by the multi-layered build-up to Henry Slade’s try in the 14th minute. But too often leather was put to leather, the ball soaring into the night sky. England kick for position and for pressure. But too often they either under or over-clubbed, George Ford dumping one yards out on the full at one point.

Any hopes that Wales would be given the rub of the green by officials didn’t materialise. Referee Romain Poite did Wales no favours, crucially overruling his TMO in mid-flow over what looked to be an infringement in the air, England profiting with Slade eventually touching down. It was a poor call.

Wales needed everything in their favour if they were to overturn odds that would have daunted even the grandfather of their fledgling flanker, James Botham. But all they could do was provide grunt and bite. There was relish in every tackle, a thundering sense that there was an ancient rivalry to be honoured. Botham himself was in the thick of it, as was Dan Biggar and Johnny Williams in the backs. England were made to graft for every inch of turf.  

James Botham  - ANDY HOOPER
James Botham - ANDY HOOPER

Wales were vulnerable in the scrum, though, ceding far too many penalties, Farrell sending his team into the interval with an 11-7 lead after yet another infringement. The second-half followed suit with a final indignity on the Welsh eight inflicted five minutes from time. An off-key Farrell, though, missed the shot at goal, his third blooper of the evening.      

A dreek day in west Wales was a suitably bleak backdrop, although there was a bid to lift the mood with touchline flame-throwing machines and piped arias during lulls in play. Llanelli may be the spiritual heartland of Welsh rugby as Jones himself alluded to in the build-up, posting a warning to his team that extraordinary things have happened in these parts. Those put-upon Wales supporters clinging hope to their breast were given early succour with a try against the grain scored by Williams, a score that relied, as is often the case, on the zest of Biggar, the fly-half first blocking an attempted grubber through by Slade and then following it up to fly-hack it infield from where Williams was able to slip past the covering Ford to get to the touchdown. But it was a false omen, Wales not creating anything of note thereafter.

Jones has never bought into the supposed current supremacy of his side despite their now seven successive victories. They are as prone to faulty execution as any team as was shown in the inaccurate goal-kicking of the usually dead-eyed Farrell. The England captain is adept at getting the scoreboard ticking over, easing nerves and establishing momentum. But two straightforward pots at the posts, a penalty and then a conversion, went begging. The fly-half made amends with a penalty on the half-hour mark to nudge his side ahead.  

Owen Farrell  - ANDY HOOPER
Owen Farrell - ANDY HOOPER

Wales have used the visit of England in troubled times before to provide a lift to the nation. They will have to find another placebo. The restorative powers of that pick-me-up have gone. From Grand Slam to Grand Slump. Wales are in a trough, partly of their own muddled making, partly as a result of injury. There has scarcely been a more ruinous wipe-out of national assets – no Josh Navidi, no Jonathan Davies, no Liam Williams, no Justin Tipuric – since Ian MacGregor was down this way in the eighties closing down the mines.

These rookie players will be the better for the experience, however, the minimum requirement being sought by head coach, Wayne Pivac.

England are in a good place despite their frailties and limitations. Their bench added late energy with Jonny Hill and Ellis Genge to the fore. The Nations Cup may not be a blue-riband tournament but any silverware is welcome at Twickenham. England, though, need to find more gears as well as more nuance if they are to prevail, never mind winning any floating hearts and minds.