Wales 19-26 England, Six Nations, Millennium Stadium, February 4
Clinical England punish wasteful Wales
Graham Jenkins at the Millennium Stadium
February 4, 2011
England's Tom Palmer tackles Wales' Dan Lydiate during a bruising clash at the Millennium Stadium © Getty Images
You could be forgiven for thinking that the centre of the sporting world was in Texas this weekend, where Super Bowl XLV will draw tens of thousands to Cowboys Stadium and billions more in TV ratings. But the Six Nations opener between Wales and England at the Millennium Stadium provided a contest to rival any conjured by their well-padded cousins.
These two old foes served up the kind of brutal and enthralling contest that makes the Six Nations such a gripping spectacle. The game may have lacked some fireworks worthy of the billing following a week or so of verbal grenades but it was a classic in its own way. It was nip and tuck but in the end a clinical England secured a deserved victory against a wasteful Wales. The end result - an important win away from home - is the latest stepping stone in the development of a side that has its sights set on returning to the top of the world.
England remain some way from that goal but with the cool-headed Toby Flood at the helm don't bet against them reaching the pinnacle of the game again. The classy fly-half picked up the Man of the Match honour with an excellent display, calling the shots and carving openings like a veteran quarterback. There is no longer any doubt that the England No.10 shirt belongs to the Tigers playmaker.
He has grown into the role and finally emerged from Jonny Wilkinson's shadow with his forthright instruction to his friend and team-mate as he made way in the second-half saying so much about the assurance and confidence of the younger man. He also crafted the crucial opening score for winger Chris Ashton, whose exemplary vision reinforced his reputation as one of the the best support runners in the game.
The Northampton speedster would add a second score later as the machine-like England showed the kind of ruthless streak demanded by manager Martin Johnson - crossing with Wales reduced to 14-men following the sin-binning of tight-head Craig Mitchell. For all their impressive early industry, the hosts came up short when gifted the same advantage in the first half with England lock Louis Deacon the next to feel the wrath of referee Alain Rolland. And that failure to press home their advantage and reap th ekind of reward their efforts arguably deserved would ultimately cost them the game.
Ashton's brace offers further proof of his growing stature but the 23-year-old, who is destined to be a star of this year's Rugby World Cup, should be grateful for the role played by his fellow wing man Mark Cueto, who remains a key part of England's arsenal despite the lack of tries to his name of late. Under-fire hooker Dylan Hartley also responded well to a testing week with a solid display but it was not such a great day for scrum-half Ben Youngs - so often the dynamo driving England he suffered a rare off day while question marks remain in midfield.
Flood's game management helped direct a side that had been stripped of their captain Lewis Moody but that is not to take away from stand-in skipper Mike Tindall, whose work-rate and defensive prowess helped strangle what attacking flair the Welsh could muster. In that regard he had a more than able cohort in No.8 Nick Easter, who responded to being passed over for the armband with another stand-out display.
The picture for Wales is not so rosy. Stripped of a host of front-line stars they were always up against it. But they boast significant strength in depth and no-one in their right mind was writing them off coming into this game. And it is a game that they could and perhaps should have won. Wayward kicks in the first-half did little to offer hope to those fans desperate to see the end of a seven Test run without a win. In a game that was destined to be a close-fought affair such misses were always going to prove costly and so it proved. The fear before the game was they would be dominated up front but having held their own they failed to utilise the hard-won possession. But it was their painfully lateral movement and lack of strike runners that should give more cause for concern as they look to stop their World Cup year spiralling out of control. The feat
They have not won a game since last year's Six Nations and played like a side that hadn't - lacking in confidence and ideas. Too often they had to rely on mistakes from the visitors to get the home fans on their feet, as with Shontayne Hape's decision to leap out of the line in the build-up to Morgan Stoddart's try. Like England, they could be excused some of the minor errors as they worked off the ring rust but there were others that were alarming, with scrum-half Mike Phillips' ability to pass among them.
With the home crowd ready to explode into life at the merest suggestion of creative flair, Wales failed to provide a spark as if fumbling over a camp fire with damp matches. You sense that James Hook is the man to provide that much-needed impetus but he is often as remote as a corner flag at fullback and was offered precious little time at fly-half to change the game. Hook remains a headache for Wales coach Warren Gatland and fans alike while a potential citing for centre Jonathan Davies is also likely to give him a sleepless night or two.
Wales are not a poor side and this game could have gone their way but they appear to have lost their way a little. They pushed the southern hemisphere giants close on occasion last year but failed to notch what would have been a priceless victory. And that policy of regularly tackling the world's best may have come at the cost of some vital momentum and with it confidence. Time and time again ball was kicked away too readily when a side brimming with self-belief would back themselves with ball in hand. England may not be the finished article but their resolute commitment to running the ball continues to impress.
This was England's night and they will rightly celebrate securing their first win here since 2003, when a certain Martin Johnson was skipper. We all know what happened a few months after that and with this kind of display they offered a reminder of the no-nonsense rugby that brought them the game's biggest prize. The good news for England is that they will improve on this performance, while Wales simply must get better or else.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.