Six Nations: Five takeaways from Wales v England as Freddie Steward rules the Cardiff skies
Following a 20-10 victory for England over Wales in their Six Nations fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at the Principality Stadium.
The top line
This might not have been a classic match of rugby, but in terms of Wales versus England games it had everything you’d ever want from the encounter.
Massive hits, absolute physicality and a committed aerial battle underpinned the fixture, with both sides perhaps bedding in their new combinations in midfield and elsewhere. Put bluntly, it was a match that both sides were desperate not to lose and finding a pathway to win conclusively eluded both until Ollie Lawrence closed the match off in the 72nd minute.
In the final analysis, England showed greater cohesion, greater balance, faster ruck speed, and a huge degree of aerial superiority underpinned by the brilliance of Freddie Steward. Max Malins and Anthony Watson at the back, with Lawrence, Lewis Ludlam and Ellis Genge putting in a massive shift in carry and contact.
For Wales, it closes the chapter of a week of turmoil in their national sport, a defeat to add to the contractual and structural issues that permeate through their game right now. In short, Ken Owens and his men looked physically drained at the final whistle in a game that they threw their entire emotions at but ultimately game up short. For them, the fallow week cannot come quickly enough as they look to regroup.
Player of the Match Steward might want to thank his head coach Steve Borthwick for requesting the roof be opened for this match as he appeared to spend far more time airborne in the proximity of the stadium structure that he did with his feet on the Cardiff turf. His stats make remarkable reading: 89 metres carried, 17 successful catches, 12 carries, 109 metres made kicking, two passes made and two defenders beaten. Wales’ decisions to kick long to him all afternoon was about as effective as Neil Wagner’s attempts to bounce Harry Brook out in the Test series in New Zealand and their fuelling of his excellence was a key factor in England’s victory.
Alongside him England’s back three had a very impressive match all round, with Malins hungry for work coming in off the blindside wing on several occasions, and Watson looking the razor sharp Test match animal he’s proven in the past, finishing brilliantly in the corner off a wonderfully timed miss-pass from England’s outstanding forward, Alex Dombrandt. The only blemish was Malins’ midfield pass after half-time that allowed Louis Rees-Zammit a stroll to score under the posts, but other than that, England completely bossed the battle of the back threes, the crucial tussle of the match.
There’s no doubt that the midfield that finished the match for Wales were a darned sight more cohesive than those that started the game. Mason Grady, Owen Williams and Joe Hawkins spent much of the afternoon playing like men who’d only met each other in the car park before the game and as a result, Wales had no depth to their midfield running, no cohesion in the contestables and no speed of hands to profit in the backline from a number of outstanding opportunities created by their forwards either side of half-time, despite the mighty defensive effort and huge heart that Wales displayed.
Combined with the lack of breakdown threat and clearout players, the Welsh ruck was so slow one might be tempted to time it with a calendar over and above the usual stopwatch. Time and time again England managed to disrupt their second man and the resultant possession meant Wales had no ability to get pace onto their kick chase and depth onto their midfield carrying.
By also conceding the aerial battle, without any form of pace into their backline, Wales are going to struggle to unlock any Test defence and top of Warren Gatland’s list for his next selection meeting will be to get greater balance both into the back-row and into their midfield.
The Borthwick blueprint
Slowly but surely Borthwick’s England are making small shuffles of progress. He expressed delight today at the performance of his back-row, Jack Willis, Ludlam and Dombrandt, with great focus on the speed of ruck ball created by the trio. Outside Owen Farrell, the ability of Lawrence to make metres in straight lines off phase possession has become key to the England effort with Malins offering a useful alternative runner.
Little things are starting to come together and above all, the ability of England to adapt to different challenges in this match was at the heart of their win.
In the demerit side was the lack of stability shown on the hit at scrum-time, a key issue for both teams and something that irked referee Mathieu Raynal on several occasions. And outside Farrell, once again Henry Slade produced an error-laden display, missing three tackles, being turned over twice and making some poor kicking decisions when ball in hand might have been a better choice. But England are moving forward, make no mistake about that, and their next task, France at home, will tell us a great deal about just how far they’ve travelled.
The Gatland plan
Gatland expressed a degree of disappointment post match on the lack of ruck speed his side generated, together with their general execution of the aerial contest. Wales numbered up well in defence but as Gatland said, conceding the Watson try from a first phase move was absolutely criminal at this standard.
Wales have mixed and matched their selection up until this game and it’s clear that a balance in selection in back-row and midfield is needed to maximise the possession they’re creating. They can’t go in without a breakdown specialist again and that means tweaking it at seven. When Nick Tompkins and Dan Biggar came on, their midfield looked spikey and unpredictable, causing England a number of issues around the 12 and 13 channel.
It’s still a work in progress for Gatland and Owens but this week both leaders have had their hands full with so many external foci that they can actually be proud of the way their charges turned up and played under pressure many have never come close to experiencing. As Owens said, this weekend was a line in the sand – he’ll be hoping that that sand sees the tide turning in Welsh rugby in the next few weeks.
READ MORE: Six Nations: Wooden Spoon beckons for Wales as England make it two wins out of three
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