England booked their place in next weekend’s final of the Autumn Nations Cup with a 24-13 victory over Wales to condemn the hosts to their seventh defeat in their last eight matches and ensure they will go the full calendar year without beating another top 10-ranked side.
The encounter at the Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli contained the usual bite and aggression of a normal Wales-England encounter, but perhaps without the spark that both sides are really capable of. However, Johnny Williams’s early try against the side he once represented ensured that England would not be given an easy ride, but Henry Slade quickly replied for England while the boot of Owen Farrell kept England ticking over to a 11-7 half-time lead.
A first try in six years from Mako Vunipola after the restart extended the advantage, and although two penalties from Dan Biggar reduced the deficit, not even an off-day from Farrell could prevent England from earning a likely shot at revenge against a France side who will end 2020 as the only side to beat Eddie Jones’s side - providing they do not slip up in the day’s late kick-off.
The rivalry between these two sides certainly helped to add a bit of spice to an Autumn Nations Cup that has fallen rather flat so far. Sure, there have been eye-catching highs, but moments like Jonny May’s wonder try at Twickenham last week have been few and far between.
With all three of Fiji’s group games cancelled due to Covid-19 and the action so far proving uninspiring at the very least, the tournament was in desperate need of something to stoke the embers, and Wales certainly provided that before kick off with a fiery welcome to Llanelli in an impressive effort to try and recreate the famous Cardiff atmosphere that Wayne Pivac’s side have been without this autumn.
Thankfully, that extra heat carried over into the game. The stands may have been empty for the final time this year, at least where England are concerned as 2,000 fans prepare to head to Twickenham next weekend, but this felt like any other clash between two fierce rivals. The tackles hurt, the chat was loud and both sides refused to give an inch in a physically absorbing affair.
As expected, England did have an edge over a Welsh scrum that has really struggled this year. Mako Vunipola enjoyed plenty of success early in the first half, but Wales were able to make up for that with their defensive line speed and sheer aggression. It certainly felt like the slim margins would contribute to deciding this affair.
Though England got off to a good start, they unusually failed to take any reward for it as Farrell missed his opening effort at goal following the first of those scrum infringements, and Wales made him pay. Using that line speed, Dan Biggar got into the face of Slade and charged down his attempted low kick through the line. With Farrell and Josh Adams in a foot race, the Welsh wing got to the ball first and hacked it on for Williams to do the same, and as George Ford and May managed to take each other out of the chase, it was the former England international who was able to get to the ball first to dot down and score.
Leigh Halfpenny’s conversion gave Wales a surprise seven-point lead, though it did not last long. Just three minutes later, Slade went from zero to hero as he proved the beneficiary of a good team try from the visitors. Sam Underhill made the initial dent and Wales’s inability to stop the offloads allowed Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler to carry within inches of the line. With the Welsh defence at sixes and sevens, Youngs fed Elliot Daly, and though his pass was behind Farrell, the England skipper impressively reached out one-handed to collect possession on the run and send unselfishly Slade over unopposed in the corner.
By that stage, England were lucky to still be at full strength, with Sam Underhill escaping sanction for tackling Biggar in the air. Referee Romain Poite explained that Biggar had jumped forwards into Underhill, though the home side were not exactly convinced by that decision.
Farrell wasn’t enjoying the best day from the tee though as he missed the conversion too, but finally found his range to slot two penalties before the break as Wales continued to struggle at the scrum. Samson Lee was the man really feeling the pressure, and it told when he was removed three minutes into the second half after conceding another penalty. England gambled and went to the corner but Wales’s maul defence stood up tall to turnover possession.
However, they quickly found themselves pinned back on their own line and an attempt to catch England napping backfired when a quick lineout to Taulupe Faletau ended up with the No 8 driven back over his line by Underhill. Sensing blood, Billy Vunipola went on his own down the blindside, and although he was stopped by a combination of Shane Lewis-Hughes and Louis Rees-Zammit, his brother was on hand to crash over with support from Joe Launchbury.
Two penalties in as many minutes though gave Wales a way back into the contest as Biggar made it 13-18, and with neither side in the ascendancy, the next score would prove crucial.
It came in thrilling circumstances, though Wales had reason to feel hard done by. Replacement hooker Elliot Dee slapped the ball down deliberately, but it allowed Ben Youngs to scoop up possession and break into space. He fed another replacement in Anthony Watson who was stopped short of the line after a 35m gain, but when the ball was knocked on accidentally on the Welsh five-metre, Poite came all the way back for the penalty. Wales weren’t impressed, but Farrell duly took it as he kicked his third penalty of the day to stop the Welsh comeback in its tracks.
With Wales boss Pivac sending his replacements on early in the second half, Jones waited for the final 20 minutes and the impact certainly told. Lock Jonny Hill delivered the perfect run chase to scrag Callum Sheedy deep in his own half and support from fellow substitute Jack Willis earned Farrell another shot at goal to stretch the lead to 11. Another penalty arrived in the closing minutes through Ellis Genge, but even without the additional 10 metres for Tomas Francis starting a scuffle with the England replacement prop, Farrell couldn’t find the target.
It summed up England’s campaign pretty well: it hasn’t been the best, but it’s been enough.
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny (Callum Sheedy, 66); Louis Rees-Zammit, Nick Tompkins (Owen Watkin, 74), Johnny Williams, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Lloyd Williams (Rhys Webb, 49); Wyn Jones (Rhys Carre, 70), Ryan Elias (Elliot Dee, 48), Samson Lee (Tomas Francis, 43); Jake Ball (Will Rowlands, 49), Alun Wyn Jones; Shane Lewis-Hughes (Aaron Wainwright, 52), James Botham, Taulupe Faletau.
England: Elliot Daly; Jonathan Joseph (Anthony Watson, 52), Henry Slade, Owen Farrell, Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs (Dan Robson, 77); Mako Vunipola (Ellis Genge, 67), Jamie George (Luke Cowan-Dickie, 67), Kyle Sinckler (Will Stuart, 73); Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury (Jonny Hill, 67); Tom Curry (Jack Willis, 61), Sam Underhill (Ben Earl, 74), Billy Vunipola.
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