England denied late try against Wales at Twickenham following superb performance
Following two dissapointing performances against Italy and Scotland, England came into the match against Wales as underdogs, despite playing at home for the first time in the tournament. They made four changes to the team that last started, bringing in Manu Tuilagi for Charlie Hodgson, Lee Dickson for Ben Youngs, Geoff Parling for Tom Palmer and Ben Morgan for Phil Dowson. Tuilagi was the main talking point; the man who many felt represented England’s intent to bring strong, attacking rugby to Twickenham. I, however, disagreed with this idea. I agree that Tuilagi is a powerful runner and a fine centre who in many ways is not dissimilar to the Wales centre, Jamie Roberts. But he, in my mind, was not the most attacking change. Lee Dickson came on for twenty minutes against Italy and changed the match. He delivered quick ball from the rucks and was not afraid to be brave and run with the ball in hand. The decision to replace the struggling Ben Youngs with Lee Dickson was, perhaps, the single most important decision coming into this match. There was much talk about Owen Farrell moving to fly half and whether or not he would be able to perform in the number 10 shirt, but I had already seen him play to a very high standard in that position for Saracens, so I considered this simply a smart, sensible move by the management team. Whilst all the talk was about Farrell and the fly half position, people overlooked the likes of Ben Morgan, a very powerful ball carrier at number 8 and someone who would certainly provide attacking flair. England’s team appeared, on paper, to be better balanced than the team that started against Italy and Scotland, particularly in the backs. However, with a very unexperienced half back combination, would England perform on the day against a very strong Wales side? Farrell and Dickson were perhaps the main reason why the answer to that question was a resounding yes and, whilst England were unable to get the desired result, the performance showed a large degree of promise.
Wales began the match extremely strongly with Wales’ rising star, George North, breaking the English line following a fine pass from the Welsh scrum half, Mike Phillips. He would have been through if not for a superb try saving tap tackle by David Strettle, who did incredibly well to get across to the rampaging Welsh winger. England managed to hold off extreme pressure following the initial barrage, showing the solid defense for which they were praised in their first two games and despite Wales’ domination they could only gain a penalty. Leigh Halfpenny, who kicked so well in the first two games, was unable to kick the three points which would have given Wales a well deserved lead, however. England came back strongly following twenty minutes of Welsh domination, as Lee Dickson smartly took a penalty quickly, catching the Welsh defence on their heels. The move led to an English penalty, as Wales were penalised for being offside. Farrell made no mistake and converted the chance, giving England a 3-0 lead. But the lead didn’t last long, as Chris Robshaw was penalised for not releasing the ball. On this occasion Halfpenny made no mistake, bringing the scores level. England were in the lead again soon after, though. Tuilagi looked destined to cross the line before a desperate tackle from Sam Warburton stopped him short. The ball went out to Ashton, who also came close to scoring, but in the end England had to settle for a penalty which Owen Farrell calmly kicked. At this point the whole complexion of the match changed, with England suddenly dominating. A clever chip from Farrell sent him away, before a shattering tackle from George North put him down. Although England were beginning to look like the better side Wales were soon level thanks to a penalty from Halfpenny, following a mistake from David Strettle. But, again, England took the lead soon after, as Farrell kicked a penalty to send England in at half time with a 9-6 lead. England began the second half as they ended the first, boosted by an injury to Welsh battering ram, Jamie Roberts. Mauritz Botha chased down a clearance kick as Priestland took too long to get rid of it, but he was then tackled from an offside position by the Welsh fly half. This earnt Priestland a yellow card, meaning that Wales would have to play with fourteen men for ten minutes. Farrell also kicked the penalty, leaving England 12-6 up. At this stage, however, Wales’ extra experience shone through, as they intelligently ran down the clock whilst Priestland’s time in the sin bin ran down. They managed to gain a penalty to reward their hardwork, which Halfpenny stepped up to cleanly kick through the posts. At this stage Stuart Lancaster made an error that potentially sent the game in Wales’ favour. He made two substitutions, taking off the impressive Lee Dickson and bringing on the out of form Ben Youngs, as well as replacing Mauritz Botha with Courtney Lawes, now back to full fitness. Ben Youngs, who has been very poor throughout the Six Nations thus far, slowed the tempo of the play, which worked in Wales’ favour. Farrell missed a difficult chance to once more give England a six point lead and then limped off, prompting Lancaster to bring on Toby Flood off the bench. Seeing England’s young star leave the pitch Wales stepped it up, sparking a period of pressure for the visitors. This led to a penalty, which was converted by Halfpenny, leaving the scores level heading into the final period of the game. Wales quickly took advantage of their sudden resurgence in the game as, out of nowhere, Scott Williams ripped the ball from Courtney Lawes in midfield and then hit a beautifully weighted kick. He chased it down and gathered the ball, completing a beautiful piece of individual excellence by scoring the try under the posts. Halfpenny added the extra points, meaning Wales were seven points ahead with five minutes to go. This set up a spectacular, tense last few minutes of the match, with Toby Flood chipping a kick towards the corner for Strettle to chase. It appeared that George North knocked the ball into touch without making any attempt to catch the ball, an illegal move in rugby. Had he not, Strettle would almost certainly have scored. The referee, however, did not penalise the Welshman and so England had a lineout in a very dangerous area. England put pressure on the Welsh defence and eventually conjured the chance they had been hoping for, as Mike brown fed David Strettle who went over the try line, whilst two Welsh players tried desperately to hold the ball up. There followed a tense few minutes, as the officials looked at television replays to try and determine whether Strettle had managed to put the ball down. It appeared from one camera angle that Strettle did score, but the players bodies obscured any other view and so the replays were not conclusive enough to award the try and Wales won the match.
Defeat was a harsh result for England, who will rightly feel upset after what was an encouraging performance. My personal opinion at the time was that it was a try, but I was absorbed in the game and watching it as a passionate England supporter. On reflection, I have realised that it was probably impossible to give the try, based on the camera angles available to the officials and with the short time frame available to them to make a decision. England will still take away some pride, however, with Owen Farrell and Lee Dickson putting in particularly impressive performances. Owen Farrell has definitely lived up to the hype and has not dispelled comparisons with England great, Johnny Wilkinson. There are still some areas that need amending though. The form of Chris Ashton is particularly worrying, as he is perhaps our most natural finisher. He either needs to rekindle his confidence or England need to start looking at the likes of Ugo Monye or Mark Cueto as potential replacements as, put simply, Ashton has been poor so far. This also applies for Ben Youngs. Lee Dickson looks to have sealed a starting position following an impressive showing against Wales, but if Ben Youngs is to play any part in the remainder of the tournament he must find some form. He appears to be trying too hard at the moment and needs to nail the basics and stop box kicking when it is not needed- its just kicking away possession!
England will look forward to their match against France on Sunday 11th March knowing that they have come very close to upsetting one of the favourites already. France are a strong side, but if England can perform as well as they did against Wales and mix in a bit of luck they stand a strong chance! If Ashton can find his scoring touch it might help too…