England’s hopes of securing a first Grand Slam since 2003 on the anniversary of their first ever win 100 hundred years ago were well and truly smashed by a slick and ruthless Wales.
All the pre-match punditry had Saturday’s game down as a tight encounter that could go either way. Yet from the very start it was Wales who drove with the most force and played with the most conviction in perhaps the most intense and frantic forty minutes of rugby of the whole championship.
For all Wales’ prowess England matched them in indiscipline, conceding five penalties by the twenty minute mark – as many as they conceded to Italy in the entirety of last week’s match. Ultimately, England were fortunate to go into the break only six points down, a fact largely due to Michael Brown’s wonderful tap tackle on George North in the latter stages of the half.
The game may have been on a knife edge at half time, but after the break England were well and truly put to the sword. It was the Wales back three that would prove the definitive difference. Halfpenny was a figure of unerring concentration; his accurate goal-kicking illustrating the developments Owen Farrell must make before he is to be considered a world class kicker.
Apart from the occasional promising, yet fruitless bursts, Mike Brown and Chris Ashton paled in comparison to George North and Alex Cuthbert; both of who must be regarded as automatic picks for the upcoming Lions tour. Cuthbert left Brown for dead to run in the first try, and benefited from a brilliantly composed run from man-of-the-match Justin Tipuric for his second score. Meanwhile the performance of Ashton did little to quell questions surrounding his defensive weaknesses.
The last ten minutes saw all attempts of an England counter ultimately come to nothing, the most frustrating moment coming when Danny Care misguided a kick behind the Welsh line strait into touch from an extremely promising attacking position. It was fitting that the match finally drew to a close after an England knock-on. The score finished Wales 30-3 England.
In some ways such a comprehensive defeat may hurt less for England than it would have if they had lost by the eight points Wales needed to clinch the title. They can have no complaints for losing against a team that comprehensively outclassed them in almost all areas of the game.
Of course this defeat will be painful; however England need not be too disheartened. The fact that they were in a position to challenge for the Grand Slam at all is testament to the quiet yet significant changes that Stuart Lancaster and his team have made over the last year. There is no doubt that this England is a better team than the one that suffered such an ignominious exit from the last world cup. Lancaster has a young and inexperienced side – only 5 of the starting fifteen had played at the millennium stadium before. He will know that there is still much development and improvement to come from his squad, which if managed correctly, could see them mount an even stronger challenge for next year’s championship. Not that Lancaster would dare admit that he may be looking that far ahead.