ENGLAND’S World Cup year gained lift-off at the Millennium Stadium as they launched their RBS Six Nations campaign by recording a stirring 21-16 victory over Wales.
Unlike in 2013 on their last Cardiff visit when England were humiliated by a record 27-point margin, this time Chris Robshaw’s men delivered when it mattered.
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Despite falling ten points behind early on to a Rhys Webb try, plus a Leigh Halfpenny conversion and penalty, England built on some mighty work by their forwards as Bath backs and Six Nations debutants Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph both claimed touchdowns.
Stand-off George Ford added three penalties and a conversion – his second strike after Wales wing Alex Cuthbert had been sin-binned – while Wales failed to score in the second period after another Halfpenny penalty and a Dan Biggar drop-goal had given them what appeared to be a solid advantage.
The teams meet again in a crunch World Cup pool game at Twickenham on 26 September, and England struck a psychological blow by outmuscling Wales up-front as flanker James Haskell, No 8 Billy Vunipola and prop Dan Cole all produced five-star performances.
It was arguably the most notable and important win of Stuart Lancaster’s coaching reign, especially given the number of players he lost beforehand through injury, with England now set up for a major tilt at Six Nations silverware.
Wales, though, will need to take a long hard look at themselves ahead of what promises to be a testing encounter against Scotland at Murrayfield on Sunday week.
Wales showed two changes from the side that beat South Africa last time out, with wing George North returning instead of Liam Williams, while hooker Richard Hibbard replaced Scott Baldwin.
England, though, were decimated by injuries that sidelined the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Ben Morgan, and there were just five starting line-up survivors from the side crushed in Cardiff two years ago.
Wales had talked throughout the build-up of making a fast start, and they duly delivered, leaving England in the starting blocks as they went 10-0 ahead after just eight minutes. Halfpenny opened their account through a long-range penalty after England wing Jonny May was punished for not rolling away, then Wales undid their opponents from a close-range scrum.
England’s forwards managed to drive Wales backwards, but No 8 Taulupe Faletau did brilliantly under pressure to keep possession and find Webb, who darted and swerved outside May for a try that Halfpenny converted.
It was a horrendous opening by England, and Wales’ flow was only disrupted when stand-off Biggar required treatment to a facial wound following a clash of heads with team-mate Gethin Jenkins.
It took England almost 15 minutes to find any kind of fluency, but they responsed to Wales’ onslaught in impressive fashion when a couple of powerful forward surges found back-up through a neat Mike Brown kick that Watson gathered and finished off to claim his first Test try.
Ford’s conversion attempt hit the post, yet England were up and running, even if another Halfpenny penalty from just inside the visitors’ half made it 13-5 early in the second quarter of a pulsating contest.
An opening Ford penalty cut the deficit ten minutes before half-time, while Wales lost North, who took an accidental blow to the head from England lock Dave Attwood’s boot, and Scarlets back Liam Williams replaced him.
North soon returned to the action, though, as Wales looked to regain some initiative during a half that saw Lancaster’s men respond to their early problems by displaying plenty of verve and purpose, with Joseph playing a pivotal role.
But England could not prevent Biggar from dropping a goal with the final act of a fast and furious opening 40 minutes, as Wales trooped off eight points clear.
Their advantage was then slashed within five minutes of the restart, with England posting their second try that was a monument to patient and accurate phase-play.
They went through 20 passages of action, using their forwards to drive deep into Welsh territory, and the finish was expertly applied by Joseph, who glided over the line to score, before Ford’s conversion made it 16-15.
Wales had been unable to reproduce anything like their initial thrust and guile, and they were again put under enormous pressure when Haskell stormed towards the line, only to smash into the post. However, referee Jerome Garces spotted some technical indiscipline in the Wales ranks, and Cuthbert received a yellow card before a resulting Ford penalty put England ahead for the first time.
England should have sealed the victory five minutes from time when Attwood crossed, but the try was disallowed for obstruction by replacement Nick Easter.
It prompted a frantic finale, with Wales looking to attack from deep and rescue the game, but they conceded another penalty 45 metres out and Ford stepped up to seal the deal.
Scorers: Wales – Tries: Webb. Cons: Halfpenny. Pens: Halfpenny 2. Drop Goals: Biggar. England – Tries: Watson, Joseph. Cons: Ford. Pens: Ford 3.
Wales: Halfpenny, Cuthbert, J. Davies, Roberts, North, Biggar, Webb, Jenkins, Hibbard, Lee, Ball, A. Jones, Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau. Replacements: M. Phillips for Webb (69), James for Jenkins (60), Jarvis for Lee (72), Charteris for Ball (69). Not Used: Baldwin, Tipuric, Priestland, L. Williams.
England: Brown, Watson, Joseph, Burrell, May, Ford, B. Youngs, Marler, Hartley, Cole, Attwood, Kruis, Haskell, Robshaw, B. Vunipola. Replacements: Twelvetrees for Burrell (76), Wigglesworth for B. Youngs (69), M. Vunipola for Marler (55), T. Youngs for Hartley (55), Brookes for Cole (62), Easter for Kruis (72). Not Used: Croft, Cipriani.