CARDIFF, Wales — Sometimes rugby makes little sense. Wales were magnificent in this 21-16 defeat, and the atmosphere was intoxicating, yet somehow England clung on by their fingernails to even have a shot at the win.
Then, with four minutes left, Elliot Daly darted down the wing to break Welsh hearts and extend this most remarkable of runs under coach Eddie Jones.
Daly was involved in the defining moments of the match. Minutes earlier, he prevented Dan Biggar from scoring the match-winning try for Wales in a lung-busting run. Then in the 76th minute, he was the man who crossed in the corner to clinch the match. It repaid the trust in Jones’ decision to shift him to the wing. Those small margins continue to fall in England’s favour, and consecutive win No.16 is in the books.
“Prepare for shenanigans” was Jones’ message to England, but this was pure larceny — it was a great smash-and-grab job. England’s focus was unwavering, but they were pushed to their absolute limits by Wales. Every blade of grass was fought over; this was not one for the fainthearted.
Had the Principality Stadium roof been closed, this match would have blown it wide open. It was the most titanic, thrilling, bruising of Six Nations games. It was fizzing with adrenaline; two old foes going hammer and tongs in this intoxicating Cardiff cauldron.
Each pore felt invaded by this all-encompassing celebration of Anglo-Welsh rivalry. Eventually it was England’s victory, yet Wales were magnificent for so much of this game.
At the heart of it was Joe Launchbury, who earned the man of the match award. While Daly’s name will be up in lights for his match-winning score, it was the work of old carthorse Launchbury that helped them lay their foundations. He was magnificent for England, a performance to rival any under Jones. And this was England’s point of difference; the heroes in the shadows at a stadium which has been the place of both demons and ecstasy in the past.
Nathan Hughes also carried courageously in the back row. He is no Billy Vunipola, England’s injured No.8, but he got through an incredible amount of work. Owen Farrell was at his abrasive best, while Jack Nowell was fantastic on the flank.
Dan Biggar punts ahead as Elliot Daly hunts him down in a race from the Wales line to the England half that proved pivotal to the visitors’ victory. Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
But for so much of this game, England were under the cosh. Wales’ Biggar was magnificent — he scoffed in the face of critics this week with a wonderfully assured performance — as was his half-back partner Rhys Webb. Both displayed their British & Irish Lions credentials as did their wonderful captain Alun Wyn Jones, but their hero was sat on the bench at full-time. Ross Moriarty carried on a tradition set by father Paul in the late 1980s as he tackled himself into the ground. The decision to replace him after just 53 minutes was curious with his back-row colleagues Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric also superb.
Liam Williams’ try shortly before halftime was straight from the Alex King playbook — a simple but brilliant 8-9-11 move — and Wales dominated collisions and made eight turnovers to England’s two.
But statistics mean little. This was about focus for England, and the difference was that while Wales had chances to win the match, England took theirs.
All week the talk was of mental preparation for England — they would not have blinked twice had Tom Jones flown into the stadium on a dragon and landed on the halfway line. Even when it looked like they had finally lost the match, they found a way to cling on and then return fire.
These top two inches, the part where the head can win matches for you, is being positively affected by Jones. For England’s first-half try, they went through 26 phases and kept the ball for three minutes before Ben Youngs dived over. That’s something even the All Blacks would have looked at and given a nod of approval.
Married with the focus is the unwavering, undying self-belief which is the lifeblood of this team. Jones’ psychology ties you in knots, but it works — it is why Dylan Hartley is still captain, even if he was replaced in the 47th minute by Jamie George. He may not be the most gifted hooker in the team, but leaders like Hartley and Owen Farrell bring those intangible benefits which anchor this England team. They have their bench, too: Ben Te’o and George giving them essential go-forward while James Haskell changed the balance of the breakdown.
In his on-pitch interview postmatch, Hartley was asked: “Did you really still believe?”
“Yes,” was the succinct answer. On mental strength alone, England rival any team in the world. This remarkable win and incredible run are testament to it.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY