England 12 Wales 19
Twickenham, 25th February 2012
Wales must now be firm favourites to achieve their third Grand Slam in eight years after securing their twentieth Triple Crown at ‘Fortress’ Twickenham; England meanwhile will be wondering how, after leading for the vast majority of the game, managed to let their lead slip and in effect surrender the Championship to their Welsh cousins. Ultimately, the game epitomised the semantics of the fine margins that define the international stage.
The deciding moment came after seventy-four minutes as substitute winger, Scott Williams, stripped England colossus, Courtney Lawes, chipped through an ailing England line and then- albeit thanks to an exceptionally lucky bounce- beat Tom Croft to the ball to score by the posts to give the Welsh a five-point lead with as many minutes left to play. Leigh Halfpenny added the afters to put the Welsh seven in front and reward them with what had seemed an unlikely victory only ten minutes earlier.
Wales entered the match as slight favourites given their impressive form during victories over Ireland and Scotland. England, having awkwardly staggered to wins over the Championship’s whipping boys, Scotland and Italy, were much improved, in no small part to the introduction of Northampton’s Lee Dickson and shift of Owen Farrell to outside-half. As expected Manu Tuilagi’s ball-carrying was exemplary and he cast a shadow over both Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies throughout the match.
George North provided the first real break after a smart inside pass from Mike Philllips sent him crashing through the white defence, were it not for a last ditch tap tackle he would have been in. For the ensuing twenty minutes Wales looked marginally the better side but were unable to put themselves on the scoreboard with Halfpenny missing a relatively simple penalty early on after the Welsh scrum had dominated England.
England re-grouped and some superb running from Tuilagi brought England’s first penalty that the young and incredibly promising Farrell slotted for a 3-0 lead. Only two minutes later a static Chris Robshaw was clattered by wing forward Dan Lydiate, he held on and was penalised for Halfpenny to level the score at 3-3. Wales struggled to remain onside and just short of the half hour mark it took a spectacular tackle from the majestic Sam Warburton to deny Tuilagi the game’s first try, but the referee blew for the penalty for the offside. Farrell kicked the penalty for 6-3. Again, the English lead did not last long as Farrell this time was isolated to concede another penalty and the lead as Halfpenny converted. Just before half-time an England turnover gave Farrell the opportunity to give the Sweet Chariot the lead at the break and the youngster duly obliged with a cracking touchline penalty. 9-6 at the break.
England controlled the majority of the second-half. Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland, was sin binned for another Welsh offside infringement, this time on his own try line. Yet England failed to capitalise. Farrell slotted the ensuing penalty for 12-6 but the next ten minutes saw a 3-0 victory for Wales, Halfpenny again the scorer. Replacement scrum-half, Ben Youngs gave away a penalty with nine minutes to go bringing the scores level at 12-12.
Three minutes later Scott Williams won the game for Wales. On the final whistle David Strettle had a try disallowed as he failed to ground the ball under the weight of young North. The agony grew slowly but surely as the English public realised that Strettle had not grounded the ball.
This was England’s best showing under Stuart Lancaster. Owen Farrell looks to have a bright future at ten, though the injury he picked up on the hour may stunt his immediate growth. However, Ben Youngs should never have come on with twenty to go for an in form Dickson. Youngs’ pass is too slow for international level; he has an incredible ability to eat up the space of those around him and acts on impulses that are absurd. Furthermore, simple errors cost England, especially the Lawes strip; a second row should never be stripped by a winger. Lawes has taken the ball into contact thousands of times and should know better.
Fine margins cost England the game: a missed penalty from Farrell that would have made it 15-9, Lawes’ strip and Strettle’s disallowed try. Unfortunately, this story is all too familiar for a side that is still attempting to match its potential.