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Grand Slam becomes real prospect for Wales after England victory

Nothing raises the heart rate like a Wales-England match in Cardiff – an entire nation enkindled by pyrotechnics, Eddie Butler’s soliloquys and hair-raising anthems, all before kick-off. Thereafter, the nerves only proliferate.

For Welsh supporters on Saturday, these nerves finally settled in the 74th minute, when replacement fly-half Callum Sheedy knocked over his third penalty to leave the score 33-24, with England more than a converted try behind with just six minutes left. Four minutes later, far from any Red Roses comeback, Welsh substitute lock Cory Hill crashed over the line, giving Wales a record 40 point total against England.

Two controversial refereeing decisions, however, undermined this imperious looking score line. Wales’ first try was enabled by French referee Pascal Gaüzère failing to give England enough time to set after a water break, while their second try involved a blatant knock-on which Gaüzère and other match officials overlooked.

Wales were nonetheless deserving winners. With a 16-point victory margin, and two guaranteed penalties had the tries not been awarded, Wayne Pivac’s side would still have comfortably beaten England.

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Beyond fortuitous officiating decisions, the two sides were fairly evenly matched. Both occasionally found space in attack, yet defences remained largely on top, and the set piece was likewise evenly-matched as Wales stole a couple of lineouts, but England had a slight upper hand in the scrum.

That said, there were two significant differences between the teams: penalty count and kicking strategy.

England’s reckless knack for giving away penalties has been a consistent problem under Eddie Jones and it ultimately lost them the game on Saturday. Chief offender Maro Itoje gave away five penalties alone, while England conceded fourteen together, compared to Wales’ nine. This high count yielded possession and territory to Wales throughout the game and was instrumental in Liam Williams’ and Kieran Hardy’s tries which both came from quick tap penalties.

England also underperformed in their kicking strategy, as Wales’ back three fielded most kicks with ease. Wales meanwhile kicked very cleverly, deliberately not finding touch, in the knowledge that England like to launch their attacks from lineouts. Instead, Wales kicked to the England backfield and backed their chase to deal with any counter-attack. 

Man for man, Wales outplayed England, as some key battles were clearly won on the western side of the Severn Bridge. Wales Captain Alun Wyn Jones outworked and outthought his English second row counterpart Itoje, with the former bolstering his credentials for Lions’ captain and the latter all but throwing his away. Man of the match and number eight Taulupe Faletau was immense for the third week in a row, dominating the tackles and metres made statistics, while his English cousin Billy Vunipola (also playing number eight) was still a long way from his best. Welsh winger Louis Rees-Zammit meanwhile competently marked his opposite man Jonny May and proved himself to be the quicker of the two.

With just two games left in the championship this year, and one being against Italy, Wales find themselves on the brink of a rather fortuitous Grand Slam. Should they go on to beat Italy and France, an asterisk may loom over their triumph. However, what Wales have already achieved this Six Nations, irrespective of red cards and dodgy tries, is nothing short of a miracle. Prior to this tournament, Pivac’s team had only beaten Italy and Georgia. Now they have won three in a row against first class opposition. Public faith restored.

Image: via Rob Masefield via Flickr