England victory over Wales sets up three-way Six Nations fight on final day
Stuart Lancaster’s men must beat Italy and hope for favours from France against Ireland
Stuart Lancaster was left looking for a favour from France after his side’s 29-18 win over Wales set-up a three-way fight for the Six Nations Championship.
England secured a first Triple Crown since their World Cup-winning year of 2003 with a commanding display at Twickenham on Sunday that scuppered Welsh hopes of an unprecedented third successive outright Six Nations title.
Victory left England level on points with Ireland and France, who play each other in Paris on Saturday’s final day of the tournament – hours after England conclude their championship away to Italy in Rome.
Ireland have a points difference advantage of +49 over England. That means England, currently +29 to the good over France, must beat Italy – a side they’ve never lost to in 19 tests between the two countries – and hope for either a narrow French win or an unlikely draw in Paris if they are to take the title.
Lancaster, whose previous two Six Nations campaigns as England coach have seen the team finish runners-up to Wales, accepted the title odds were stacked against his men.
“Ireland are a quality side,” he said. “But France on their day at home, with something to play for – who knows?
“But we can’t control that, we’re first up. We’ve got a proud Italian side to play against who gave us a hard time two years ago and gave us a hard time last year at Twickenham.”
Wales’ starting 15 included 12 members of the British & Irish Lions squad led by their coach Warren Gatland that won a test series in Australia last year.
But England, courtesy of scrum-half Danny Care’s typical “tap and go”, and a well-worked move finished off by centre Luther Burrell, out-scored Wales two tries to nil.
And fly-half Owen Farrell, impressive in open play, maintained the scoreboard pressure by landing all seven of his goal-kicks.
England also disrupted the Welsh front row to such an extent at the scrum that veteran prop Gethin Jenkins was sent to the sin-bin by French referee Romain Poite in the second half.
This win was England’s first victory against Wales under Lancaster and helped erase any lingering scars from last year’s record 30-3 loss in Cardiff which obliterated English dreams of a Grand Slam.
And it had added importance given that the nations’ next Twickenham encounter will be a potentially decisive pool match in a 2015 World Cup “group of death” also including Australia.
“Because of the significance of the game last year and obviously the pressure on the boys to deliver, in light of the World Cup in a year-and-a-half’s time and playing at Twickenham, the boys wanted to win this game and I’m delighted for them that they did,” said Lancaster.
Encouragingly for England, who will hope to welcome back a quartet of injured Lions in Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft, Geoff Parling and Dan Cole in the not too distant future, their back play is now starting to match that of a powerful pack.
“When we first came together three years ago, we were very much a defence-focused team and we have kept that in us,” said England captain Chris Robshaw.
“We have added a string to our bow with our attack, which has gone up a huge amount,” the openside flanker added.
Only the boot of Leigh Halfpenny, the Lions’ man of the series in Australia, kept Wales in the match, with the full-back kicking all of the visitors’ points courtesy of six penalties.
But shortly before the finish he went off with what Gatland said was a season-ending shoulder injury sustained in preventing Burrell scoring what would have been a second try.
And with Wales often insipid in attack on the back of a lacklustre display by fly-half Rhys Priestland, there was much for Kiwi coach Gatland to ponder ahead of Wales’ tournament finale against Scotland in Cardiff.
“It’s been tough on these [Wales] players in retrospect – a Grand Slam, a championship, a Lions tour – it’s been a long 18 months for those players,” he said.
“But this is professional sport and you’ve got to get yourselves up and unfortunately we weren’t as good as we can be and that’s disappointing.”