Marcus Smith kicks England to victory over Wales in tense Six Nations clash

Maro Itoje tumbled out of the breakdown and came up with the ball, and finally it was over. This was not a game for the rugby aesthetic, nor truly one for the rugby purist, but eventually a competitive Six Nations game broke down after the first half errata. Eventually, it was England and Itoje who clung on to hold off a double Welsh fight-back and keep faint title hopes alive in a messy affair.

This had been billed as knockout rugby but the early rounds were contested of squabbles and sloppy punches thrown against the ropes. It was a first half played in bits and pieces, rather stumbling across the broken bric-a-brac of scruffy breakdowns and slap-dash set-pieces, with scrums contested in the abstract as both front rows did everything they could except drive legally, often before the ball could be put in.

This meant that a Twickenham crowd afforded a Six Nations viewing since the last time these two teams met here never really had reason to rise to their feet. Shorn of Manu Tuilagi just eight hours after naming the center among a Six Nations side for the first time since that fixture two years ago, Eddie Jones promoted Elliot Daly from the bench with Joe Marchant hastily called in to replace him among the substitutes after a single day of Friday training – team news belatedly confirmed with little less than an hour to play until kick-off.

There were floating glimpses from both sides in attack, and though Alex Cuthbert looked a danger when afforded space and time with ball in hand, it was more often than not England playing with definite adventure and accuracy. With Harry Randall and Marcus Smith setting a quick tempo and England’s forward runners on sharp angles, the collision dominance allowed England to make regular advances into the Welsh half, and Smith’s right boot pushed the hosts into a 6-0 advantage in the opening exchanges.

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It was then time for the first endless passage of set-piece blunder. Nick Tompkins’ canny boot through earned Wales a five-meter scrum, but neither with the shove nor with the lineout that followed could they force their way through – Ryan Elias’ hands evading a set-piece routine of clunky moving parts that rather scraped against one another, allowing England to clear.

That was the sum total of Wales’ first half forays deep into English territory, with Dan Biggar increasingly annoyed by the efforts of the home side to stall Welsh ball at the breakdown. The captain and was in the ear of Mike Adamson throughout, like a mosquito schooled on the finer points of the latching law, at one point brazenly offering to aid the referee with his officiating.

In patches, England played with depth and speed and were able to create problems for the visiting defence. If not for one moment of particular breakdown cynicism from Liam Williams after Charlie Ewels was dragged down a foot out, England’s outside backs could have made the most leisurely of passage into the left corner, with Williams duly sent for the sin bin. As was becoming the theme, a scrum mishap ended England’s hopes of immediately capitalizing.

Another strike from Smith’s boot, atoning for an earlier straightforward miss, kept England ticking on, and they had further chance to press their advantage home when Henry Slade’s magnificent left-footed punt scuttled over the touchline five meters out, utilizing the 50:22 law to perfection. Taulupe Faletau’s pilfering hands ensured that Wales would again hold out.

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The half ended with England straining Welsh sinews and synapses with a succession of varied, muscular movements. Eventually, another penalty drawn, and Smith sent the players down the tunnel with England’s lead beginning to build but the home side struggling to enliven as they would have liked.

Three minutes after the players re-emerged, cause for Twickenham to roar. An errant throw from Elias flew too far and Alex Dombrandt could hardly believe his fortune from him, the number eight stepping out of a tackle and having just long enough of a reach to ground before the covering Welsh defenders could force the ball from him.

That forced Wales into the game for the first time since the opening quarter. After one brilliant passage of phase play, a three-player overlap was wasted by a tight five forward’s oblivious charge. On their next 22 entry, the backs ensured the chance would not go awry – Tomos Williams threading a flat pass across the faces of the England defense and a stooping Josh Adams able to sprint in.

Biggar’s conversion sailed by, but Wales were at the dance. A gambol down the left advanced them again into the England 22 and, after the forwards had inched close, the Wales fly-half found Nick Tompkins arriving on his shoulder from him. Suddenly the lead had been narrowed to five, with an outstanding Faletau increasingly influential.

(AFP via Getty Images)

For England, that was cue to send for the history-maker, with Ben Youngs winning cap number 115 to pass Jason Leonard as the most capped English male player of all time. Soon after, the replacement scrum-half somehow got across to force Cuthbert to tumble, with Jack Nowell picking through the carcass to force the holding on penalty; Smith re-established a two-score advantage from the tee.

Another followed three minutes later, and England’s confidence again began to swell.. Freddie Stewards twice took to the skies in quick succession to claim troublesome up-and-unders, and England’s bench regenerated the defensive line-speed that had largely shut down Wales’ attack before the break. Joe Marler had replaced the irrepressible Ellis Genge and drew a scrum penalty to let more time tick by, and then was the grateful recipient of a lineout ricochet as Wales tried to launch an assault from the right.

There was time enough to threaten a late twist, with Kieran Hardy tapping sharply and evading retreating English defenders to score by the post. And then, more drama – Courtney Lawes’ out-stretched hand tipping Nick Tompkins’ fizzed pass past the post, and Wales able to enter the England half.

The clock kept on ticking deep into the red, but at the last it was Itoje on a day of a jackal who legally emerged from a ruck with the ball. Spring blooming for these new England seedlings this may not have been but they remain, just about, alive in this Six Nations with Ireland and France to come.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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