It was not even close. Wales retained the championship title for the first time since 1979, a year when they defeated England 27-3 in Cardiff. They went three points better on Saturday in recording their biggest victory over the team they enjoy beating most, overpowering them up front, destroying them at the breakdown, where Sam Warburton held sway, and even outclassing them behind.
Scalpers were out in number in the streets of the city centre before the game, valuing their tickets at £500 each. Wales took the field to an explosion of fireworks and noise, but England were not disturbed by the cacophony and started strongly.
They worked an overlap after three minutes, but Manu Tuilagi, spooked by Alex Cuthbert closing in on him, knocked on when Owen Farrell’s pass should have put him through a generous gap. Wales seemed unnerved by England’s bold approach and it took a quick penalty by Mike Phillips, setting a new record of 77 caps for a Wales scrum-half, to settle his side.
Very quickly the match became played on Wales’s terms. They started to dominate the breakdown, their twin spearhead of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric forcing England to concede penalties in the tackle area, and the scrum also became a weapon of mass destruction for the home side.
England gave away five penalties in the opening 16 minutes, as many as they had conceded in the entire match against Scotland on the opening weekend. Leigh Halfpenny converted the two within his range to give Wales a six-point lead, not quite the margin they needed to retain their title.
If both teams kicked for territory, they did not do so obsessively. With the roof closed, protecting the pitch from a downpour an hour before the kick-off, Wales put the ball through hands more than they had in their previous three matches, although there were occasions – such as when Dan Biggar threw out a poor pass on halfway that was turned over and when Ian Evans and Jonathan Davies wasted attacking positions by losing the ball in contact – when conservatism seemed the best policy.
Wales were not making the most of their supremacy at forward, where Joe Marler was struggling in the scrum against Adam Jones and was among the culprits blown at the breakdown for trying to slow down Wales’s possession. He handed Wales their first three points for collapsing a scrum and his fellow front rower Tom Youngs supplied the next by preventing release at a ruck.
England needed a foothold and Warburton supplied when he was penalised for going off his feet at a ruck two minutes after Halfpenny had made it 6-0. He disputed the call with the referee, Steve Walsh, but Farrell halved the deficit, with the assistance of the right-hand upright, only for Halfpenny to make it 9-3 when Youngs popped out of a retreating scrum.
When Farrell missed a 45m penalty after Adam Jones had been penalised for dropping a scrum, the game started to fragment, so furious and full-on had the opening 25 minutes been. Play started to go from end to end: George North looked to be away, after breaking from his own half, when Mike Brown’s full-stretch lunge clipped the wing’s ankles and Brown looked away when he caught Farrell’s cross-kick, only to lose the ball after Cuthbert’s tackle.
England won a few turnovers, but they lacked composure behind. Tuilagi was thumped to the ground by Jamie Roberts and Farrell passed behind his centres after a set play. Wales looked the more assured, but missed the opportunity to lead 12-3 when Biggar’s 40m drop goal went to the left of the posts.
Marler departed four minutes into the second period, fortunate to emerge after the interval having been out of tune. Another scrum fiasco was enough for the England management, but Wales responded to the sight of Mako Vunipola by ordering another, and the prop who had spent some of his formative years in Pontypool found himself tasting grass and was penalised for it.
The crowd roared the ripping apart of England’s forwards and the moment the men in white needed leaders to support Chris Robshaw, whose selfless tackling was not matched by his colleagues’ rapacity at the breakdown. While England started with the same intent that they had the first half, the tackles they had been forced to make started to tell.
Robshaw was unable to stop Roberts and, after Tipuric and Jonathan Davies were held up close to the line, another breakdown infringement gave Halfpenny the chance to make it 12-3. Wales were, for the first time, leading by a margin large enough to overhaul England at the top of the table.
It was the moment of reckoning and Wales, so ineffective in the autumn, finished off England with two tries in 10 minutes, both scored by Cuthbert. Warburton made the first, putting Geoff Parling under such pressure on the floor that the second row threw the ball away and Tipuric took possession.
Cuthbert looked to have too much to do down the right, but Brown was shown up to be a full-back playing on the wing. He flapped rather than tackled and the covering Farrell could only watch Wales’s top try scorer in last year’s Six Nations score his third of the campaign.
Wales were 12 points ahead and, when Farrell missed a 45m penalty at the end of the third quarter, England were spent, slam dunk rather than grand slam. The crowd were shouting ‘easy, easy’ when Biggar dropped a goal from 30m and the coup de grace was applied when Warburton, the game’s dominant figure, charged away from a ruck and hurled himself at Farrell.
Wales moved the ball quickly right and Tipuric looked as if he would score himself, passing to Cuthbert after drawing Brown’s tackle. Biggar kicked the conversion with Halfpenny hobbling and made it 30-3 on 69 minutes with a penalty, the 14th England had conceded.
The title had been won and lost. England’s misery was summed up by Danny Care’s chip to the line, which was as overcooked as burnt toast. It was not Wembley 1999 over again because Robshaw’s men had been completely outplayed; they may have beaten the All Blacks, but Wales have become the masters of the attritional game that is the Six Nations.
Gethin Jenkins and the injured Ryan Jones received the trophy as Wales’s captains this campaign, but it was the man who led Wales on the opening day, Warburton, who deserved to be hoisted aloft.
Wales: Halfpenny; Cuthbert, Davies (S Williams 75), Roberts, North; Biggar (Hook 75), Phillips (L Williams 75); Jenkins (capt; James 61), Hibbard (Owens 52), A Jones, AW Jones, Evans (Coombs 69), Warburton (Shingler 75), Tipuric, Faletau.
Tries: Cuthbert 2. Con: Biggar. Pens: Halfpenny 4, Biggar. Drop goal: Biggar.
England: Goode (Twelvetrees 65); Ashton, Tuilagi, Barritt, Brown; Farrell (Flood 67), B Youngs (Care 65); Marler (Vunipola 44), T Youngs (Hartley 52), Cole (Wilson 72), Launchbury (Lawes 52), Parling, Croft, Robshaw (capt), Wood (Haskell 67).
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Attendance: 74,104 Game rating: 8/10
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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