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Wales secured the Triple Crown and kept alive their hopes of a Six Nations Grand Slam with a memorable 40-24 win over England, whose title ambitions were ended in what Eddie Jones had described as a make-or-break game in Cardiff.
Having battled their way back to level the scoreboard having been 11 points down in the first half and 10 in the second, England lost their composure and discipline in the final quarter.
Despite an emphatic scoreline, England at times played their best rugby of the Championship, with many players playing for their places – such as Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly and Owen Farrell – putting in much-improved performances. But England were still beset by disciplinary issues, conceding 14 penalties, which cost them dear as Wales extended their winning run over England at the Principality Stadium to three games.
It was a breathless, controversial first half in which little seemed to go England’s way and the central character was referee Pascal Gauzere. He did not allow the game to flow, and Maro Itoje alone had given away four penalties – at least half of them marginal – by the break.
England could not believe the first try Wales were awarded, and Wales could scarcely believe the second.
For the first, Itoje had been pinged in Wales’s 22. Water carriers were on the field, and the usual running repairs were taking place for what seemed a certain kick at goal after Farrell was told to talk to his team about their infringements. Gauzere blew his whistle, though, and Dan Biggar cross-kicked to Josh Adams, who George Ford was not able to stop.
Biggar’s opportunism was admirable but England’s wingers were under the posts, with no warning that the game was restarting. England’s protestations, led by Owen Farrell as ever, fell on deaf ears.
The second came when Louis Rees-Zammit, under pressure from Henry Slade, lost control of the ball, which spat towards the try line off the defender. Liam Williams touched the ball down, but thought little of it, only for the TMO and Gauzere to conclude Rees-Zammit had not knocked on. It was a remarkable call.
England – not great chasers – found themselves 17-6 down, and with it all to do. It is to their credit that they kept their composure and sent their next penalty to the corner for their first real attacking platform, rather than settling for trimming the deficit by three. They kept possession, then sent the ball wide, with smart hands from Kyle Sinckler and Jamie George allowing Anthony Watson to score. Farrell missed the conversion, but England had kept themselves in the game.
By half-time, the lead had been trimmed by three more points, with England showing more striking intent. Slade and Daly carried well once more, while Tom Curry picked up Itoje’s mantle in making scrum-half Kieran Hardy’s life difficult.
Shortly after the break, after some sapping defensive work from England, Farrell missed a shot to level the scores that was right at the edge of his range.
In the blink of an eye, England were 10 points back after another opportunistic try from a Welsh half-back. Jonny Hill gave away a brainless penalty on England’s 22 and, in the melee, Hardy set off for the line. Callum Sheedy – who made a terrifc impact when on for Biggar – added the conversion.
Farrell trimmed that margin by three with another penalty, before Ben Youngs dummied to dart over from close range after a period of pressure. Farrell converted, and with 18 minutes remaining, the scores were level.
But England could not keep their discipline, giving away a series of kickable penalties that saw Wales – through Sheedy’s boot – nine points ahead just 10 minutes later.
England forged their way into Wales’ 22, but an interception saw Rees-Zammit haring towards the line in pursuit of the bouncing ball. He could not gather, but Farrell knocked on trying to prevent him from scoring, and the resultant scrum led to a Cory Hill try that secured a bonus point.
Wales: L Williams; Rees-Zammit, North, J Davies, Adams; Biggar, Hardy; W Jones, Owens, Tomas Francis, Beard, AW Jones (capt), Navidi, Tipuric, Faletau.
Replacements: Dee, R Jones, Brown, Hill, Botham, G Davies, C Sheedy, Halaholo.
England: Daly; Watson, Slade, Farrell, May; Ford, Youngs; M Vunipola, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Hill, Wilson, Curry, B Vunipola.
Replacements: Cowan-Dickie, Genge, Stuart, Ewels, Martin, Earl, Robson, Malins.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
Touch judges: Andrew Brace (Ireland) & Frank Murphy (Ireland)
TMO: Alex Ruiz (France)
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