England will have a shot at winning the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup at Twickenham next Sunday. They are there having secured a seventh straight win, this time by 24 points to 13 over a spirited Wales side in Llanelli.
It was an arm-wrestle of a game. Tries in each half from Henry Slade and Mako Vunipola – his first for England since 2014 – and the boot of Owen Farrell took England to victory. England left a bit to be desired but, still, the margin of victory could have been greater, indeed Farrell missed three times from the tee, costing England eight points. They showed a little more ambition in attack than lately, but again this was a victory built on defence – even if that defence and discipline was not quite at the brutal level it was against Ireland last weekend.
Even in defeat, Wales were much better than they have been of late, bringing greater physical intensity, with Jim Botham a busy boy, but looked stilted in attack for much of the game and were thoroughly beaten up at the set piece. Their starting props were withdrawn early in the second half, but still England won penalties at the scrum.
In the first half, England looked more comfortable with ball in hand (both more comfortable than Wales, and more comfortable than they themselves have seemed since the spring), offloading well and passing more slickly. George Ford grew as a running threat, and Owen Farrell and Henry Slade looked liberated being a position further out. They enjoyed 65% of the possession in the first half, unlike their defensive masterclass of a victory last week.
England’s kicking game, however, took a while to settle. After Farrell missed a simple early penalty, Wales opened the scoring in strange fashion. Slade’s grubber was muddied by Dan Biggar, who kicked ahead just as the ball looked like it might drift into touch. Johnny Williams beat Ford to give it another hack and touch down.
As if to hammer home the point that England needed to tidy up their kicking, Ford booted the restart straight into touch.
They pulled themselves together to respond almost immediately with a fine team try. Sam Underhill broke the line and offloaded to Kyle Sinckler, who got within a couple of metres. From there, England fanned left with Farrell unselfishly feeding Slade to score out wide. Again, Farrell missed his kick.
Biggar missed one too, from range but in front of the posts, before Farrell landed three points to put England in the lead. They were good value for it, as they dominated the scrum and then the maul. As the half drew to a close, another scrum penalty – again, against Samson Lee on the tighthead – gave Farrell the chance to extend that lead to four points, which he duly did.
There was still time before the break for Wales to take a foray into England’s 22, only for Tom Curry to find a vital turnover to bring the half to an end.
In the second half, Wales grew more comfortable on the ball. England scored first, with Vunipola building on fine work from each member of the back-row to bundle over, then Biggar penned the margin back to just five points with two penalties.
But Farrell was handed more opportunities from the tee, making two and missing one, to put the game beyond Wales. England, having never quite asserted their dominance, simply had too much.
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