CARDIFF, Wales — Wales have been battling all week on and off the field. They’d secured one victory on Wednesday, but this was one scrap too many. England needed 75 minutes to break the hosts’ resolve, but in a match of low quality, and one contested in the air as much as it was on the ground, this was a case of finding the balance between heart and precision.
Ultimately England’s 20-10 victory in Cardiff came down to accuracy. Freddie Steward was at the forefront of the tussle — and was fantastic throughout. With supporters’ necks craned to the skies for most of the encounter, it needed a player like Steward to swing the match in England’s favour. But this was a game where you saw two teams scrapping for form, recognition and ultimately, a victory-at-all-costs mentality.
England eventually got it over the line through Antony Watson’s first-half try — a neat finish in the corner, Kyle Sinckler’s close-range effort in the second half and Ollie Lawrence’s late effort to seal the match. Wales’ try at the start of the second half came off a loose England pass with Louis Rees-Zammit cantering home. Ultimately it proved to be a false dawn, there was to be no remarkable Wales victory, and instead it went to rugby rationale.
The good news for those in the upper tier of the Principality Stadium was a quarter of this match was at eye level, given how much both teams kicked the ball into the chilly Cardiff air. But speak to 100 people on St Mary’s Street on Saturday evening and you’ll have the same number of differing views on this game.
For the Welsh fans, they’ll see this through a different range of red-tinted spectacles. You’ll have those who talk of how it’s 0-3 for Wales in this Six Nations, and look to the grim reality of the hand Warren Gatland’s been dealt. There’ll be a minority who hoped the players would have carried out their threat of strike action and shamed the suits. And there will be those who’d look to the young debutants in Wales’ line up and how this could yet be a transformative afternoon, given the heart they showed in a match against the most difficult of fortnight build-ups. Gatland will fall into the last category.
It was a mix-and-match Wales team with nine changes. The core was based on the experienced foundations of Alun Wyn Jones, Leigh Halfpenny, Justin Tipuric and Ken Owens. They have had some fine days here in Cardiff; the sorts of days where the noise reverberates through your chest, you get carried away on the hymns and arias and you cannot see anything but a Welsh victory.
But the new faces in the Welsh midfield in Mason Grady and Joe Hawkins are experiencing a different Principality Stadium. It was eerily quiet at times and it was only in the final quarter where the famous atmosphere came to life. At stages in the first half, England’s “Swing, Low” drowned out any resolve from the home support, others descended into a hushed hubbub of laughter and idle chit-chat. It felt disconnected. But when you have players like Faletau, Rees-Zammit and the ageless Jones, it can bring the place to life. Such flourishes and crescendos were momentary.
But given the background to this match, it did feel like Wales were playing on fumes. It was only on Wednesday when the game was green lit after their 10-day long tete-a-tete with the powers that be in Wales over contracts and a voice. That can carry you through a match, it can fuel a victory, but they just didn’t have enough.
For England this was about ignoring distractions and trusting themselves. Steve Borthwick is big on the basics, and this was a match where they won it through ensuring their bread and butter was on point. Steward’s accuracy under the high ball was just one differing factor alongside the graft on the deck from Lewis Ludlam and Jack Willis, and their set piece superiority.
The defence was also solid, with the Wales try coming off the back off Max Malins’ floated pass straight into Rees-Zammit’s hands. Watson did well on the wing while Ollie Lawrence was again a danger in centres. Jack van Poortvliet’s box kicks were largely accurate. It wasn’t thrilling, nor was it flawless — with Owen Farrell leaving 10 points out there alarming — but it was effective. England could have won this by a larger margin.
But victory was king for England by any means. The defence has improved under Kevin Sinfield and they are now two from three under Borthwick, winning their first match against Wales in Cardiff since 2017. It’s not the sort of performance on which you can lose yourself with excitement, but you are seeing gradual improvement. And that’s testament to the order Borthwick’s brought.
This was a week where Welsh player power won. But in the end, they only had so much left in them, and this proved to be an arm-wrestle too far. England simply had too much and were well worth the win.