If Barry John were watching from the heavens, he would probably have switched off with a few minutes to spare. This was hardly rugby from the Gods. It was scrappy and tense and ended with an English victory that will not be remembered as one of the generational classics.
George Ford architected a second-half fightback, kicking and squeezing England to two wins from two in the Jamie George era. There were moments when Welsh fans were praying that Dan Biggar would swap his pitch-side punditry suit for a pair of boots, as the visitors coughed up a nine-point lead. Their 12-year wait for a Six Nations victory at Twickenham continues.
In the end, this was just about a happy homecoming for the English. The standout player was Wales’s Tommy Reffell but his Ardie Savea-like interventions in attack and defence were not enough. Ultimately, England’s strength in depth on the bench proved the difference but there are far sterner tests ahead against Scotland, Ireland and France.
The big screens at Twickenham displayed black-and-white images of John, JPR Williams and Mike Weston that stirred up old memories before kick-off. There was a minute’s applause to recognise their brilliance in this historical blockbuster, which on Saturday entered a new era.
The sights, the smells and the sounds of Whitton Road remain the same on the walk down to the stadium. The annual pilgrimage past the fresh doughnut stalls and the street preachers. The queues outside the Cabbage Patch and the ticket touts travelling from east London to west. There was so much familiarity, yet so much uncertainty. There were 30 players across yesterday’s matchday squads who did not feature in the 2023 edition. The mural of Owen Farrell now has a ghostly presence on the West Stand. A rivalry restarted.
George Ford helped to architect the scrappy victory hosts England clawed back from Wales
The home side made sure that their opponents’ 12-year wait for a win at Twickenham rolls on
The England players celebrated after the final whistle in front of a dejected Nick Tompkins
Alex Mann would barely be recognised if he walked these streets but the Wales flanker, on his second cap, scored the try just before half-time to give Wales a two-score lead. It was a result of Welsh discipline, not conceding a single penalty in the first-half while England were on the receiving end of two yellow cards. England went into the match with a penalty count target of seven – yet they conceded six in the first 40 minutes.
From day one, England have talked about breathing life back into this old place. They extended their walk into the stadium and jogged around the perimeter of the pitch before kick-off. Small details that alone will do little to ease the scar tissue of just three victories here in 10 games. It came down to their performance on the pitch to get the pulse racing and it did not happen until the closing stages.
England had three visits to the Welsh 22 in the opening 10 minutes but left with zero points. New era, old problems. Ollie Chessum was yellow carded for a high shot on Keiron Assiratti and he was soon joined in the sin-bin by Ethan Roots, who pulled down a maul as Wales were charging towards the line. Outcome: penalty try.
It took a moment of defensive brilliance to prevent Wales from moving further ahead. Maro Itoje caught rookie No10 Ioan Lloyd naively trying to run the ball from his own line and forced a turnover penalty. England opted for the scrum and Ben Earl charged from the base to score. However, George Ford was charged down before he had the chance to kick the conversion.
England held off a 25-phase attack from Wales. A feather in the cap of their new defensive coach Felix Jones, whose face appeared on the big screens as Joe Marler put in the hit to turn over possession. It was patient, disciplined and aggressive but in the final minute of the half, England were broken again.
England’s Jamie George acknowledges the crowd following his side’s 16-14 victory
Ben Earl of England celebrates with team-mate Theo Dan during the win against Wales
Alex Mann scored Wales’ first try to put the visitors on the front foot and quieten Twickenham
Wales used chip kicks and tried to lob the ball wide to unpick the rush defence. In the end, Reffell intervened with turnovers and offloads, before Mann’s try gave Wales their first half-time lead here in Six Nations history.
‘We know how good Tommy is defensively but we wanted him to get more comfortable as a running threat,’ said Wales coach Warren Gatland. ‘We saw that and it can take his game to the next level. He was absolutely outstanding.’
Wales only had to make just 37 tackles in the first half – compared to 117 by England – but rookie full-back Cameron Winnett was ready to intervene with a try-saving tackle on Elliot Daly early in the second half. Ford kicked the opening points of the third quarter and there were vulnerabilities in the Welsh scrum when they brought on rookie prop Archie Griffin, who has not started a Premiership match for Bath.
In contrast, England unloaded the likes of Dan Cole and Ellis Genge to draw on every ounce of their experience. The penalty count swung and England went onto hit their target of seven.
It felt like an age was spent resetting scrums but England will have few complaints. They won a penalty at the set-piece and kicked for the corner. They attacked through nine phases, before Daly offloaded to Fraser Dingwall whose try narrowed the deficit to one point.
Wales fly-half Ioan Lloyd converts his nation’s first try as they lurched ahead of England early
England head coach Steve Borthwick will feel his side had even more to give in the tension-filled win
Ford took control of proceedings, targeting the Welsh with spiral bombs and a 50-22. The hosts began to take over the territory and, when Mason Grady was sin-binned for a deliberate knock on in the 72nd minute, England’s No10 finally kicked his side ahead.
It was tense until the end, although the itching feeling at the final whistle was that both teams have so much more to give.