ENGLAND’S World Cup year gained lift-off at the Millennium Stadium as they launched their RBS Six Nations campaign by recording a stirring triumph over Wales.
Unlike in 2013 on their last Cardiff visit when England were humiliated by a record 27-point margin, this time Chris Robshaw’s men delivered when it mattered.
Despite falling 10 points behind early on to a Rhys Webb try, plus a Leigh Halfpenny conversion and penalty, England built on some mighty work by their forwards as Bath backs and Six Nations debutants Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph both claimed touchdowns.
Fly-half George Ford added three penalties and a conversion – his second strike after Wales wing Alex Cuthbert had been sin-binned – while Wales failed to score in the second period after another Halfpenny penalty and a Dan Biggar drop-goal had given them what appeared to be a solid advantage.
The teams meet again in a crunch World Cup pool game at Twickenham on September 26, and England struck a psychological blow by outmuscling Wales up-front as flanker James Haskell, No 8 Billy Vunipola and prop Dan Cole all produced five-star performances.
It was arguably the most notable and important win of Stuart Lancaster’s coaching reign, especially given the number of players he lost beforehand through injury, with England now set up for a major tilt at Six Nations silverware.
James Haskell celebrated his return to the England fold with a typical all-action display, but he ended up red-faced after running into the post instead of diving over for a certain try.
England were 16-15 down and putting Wales under intense pressure when Haskell ran straight into the post in a slapstick moment amid the fury of battle.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get there so I tried to hit and bounce back out and I bounced back into the post unbelievably, but only I could do that,” he said.
In the end it did not matter as fly-half George Ford booted England clear with two late penalties and that was a remarkable turnaround after Wales raced into a 10-0 lead after eight minutes.
With the Cardiff crowd still dazzled by a fireworks and lights show beforehand, Warren Gatland’s men caught England cold as Webb scampered over and Halfpenny added the extras and a penalty.
But England built on some mighty work by their forwards as Bath backs and Six Nations debutants Watson and Joseph both claimed touchdowns.
Ford added three penalties and a conversion – his second strike after Wales wing Alex Cuthbert had been sin-binned – while Wales failed to score in the second period after another Halfpenny penalty and a Biggar drop-goal had given them what appeared to be a solid advantage.
Haskell said afterwards that Stuart Lancaster’s men always believed they were capable of turning things round, adding: “We’ve done a lot of work, there’s a lot of talent in this group, and I think we felt if we stick in the game, keep our discipline and play in the right areas then we were going to get tries.”
Ford once again showcased his talents, remaining cool under pressure to boot over the decisive penalty after England had given themselves an 18-16 lead, and he was just glad to give his side their just rewards for a stellar evening’s work.
“I just wanted to knock it over for the lads really. The performance they put in, especially the pack again, was outstanding so it was the least I could do to kick that,” he said.
“We felt comfortable first half. We obviously had a bit of a poor start but to come out and score 13 points, the message at half-time was exactly the same as the messages before the game.”
England were denied a third try when Dave Attwood’s effort was disallowed for replacement Nick Easter blocking Biggar in the build-up.
Wales boss Gatland paid tribute to England’s second-half show, despite clear frustrations over his side throwing away the 16-8 advantage they held at half-time.
“Give England credit, I thought they played particularly well in the second half,” he said.
“I thought we started the game well and played pretty well in the first half, were reasonably comfortable at half-time, but we weren’t able to score points in the second half and that sometimes happens at top-level sport.”
There was a question mark afterwards over George North being allowed to play the whole game, despite picking up several heavy knocks, and some were questioning if he was showing signs of concussion.
Gatland belayed those fears and backed his medical team, adding: “Well that’s part of the medical protocol.”
Wales: Halfpenny, Cuthbert, J. Davies, Roberts, North, Biggar, Webb, Jenkins, Hibbard, Lee, Ball, A. Jones, Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau. Replacements: M. Phillips for Webb (69), James for Jenkins (60), Jarvis for Lee (72), Charteris for Ball (69). Not Used: Baldwin, Tipuric, Priestland, L. Williams.
England: Brown, Watson, Joseph, Burrell, May, Ford, B. Youngs, Marler, Hartley, Cole, Attwood, Kruis, Haskell, Robshaw, B. Vunipola. Replacements: Twelvetrees for Burrell (76), Wigglesworth for B. Youngs (69), M. Vunipola for Marler (55), T. Youngs for Hartley (55), Brookes for Cole (62), Easter for Kruis (72). Not Used: Croft, Cipriani.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).