MARTIN JOHNSON'S rapidly-improving England squad proved they can handle the pressure of being favourites by ending their Millennium Stadium hoodoo to take the first step towards a grand slam.
Six Nations: The highest-ranked team at the start of the Six Nations after coming of age in the autumn, England now have three home games – before a finale in Ireland – in which to stamp their authority on the northern hemisphere ahead of the World Cup in New Zealand later this year.
Chris Ashton picked up where he left off last November by scoring both tries as the team captained by Mike Tindall responded to Johnson's call to be ruthless and so end their eight-year wait for a win in Cardiff.
They also showed a maturity late on in a thrilling encounter to withstand a rousing red tide as Wales roared back into the contest in an effort to end a seven-game losing run.
History suggests an England victory in Cardiff points to a successful year for the Red Rose.
Twenty years ago, Geoff Cooke's side began the tournament with a first win in the Welsh capital for 28 years en route the grand slam and a World Cup final.
Eight years ago, England's previous win here came amid a run of 14 wins in 15 games in the calendar year which resulted in the team led by Sir Clive Woodward, and captained by Johnson, claiming grand slam and world titles.
The victory – built on a faultless lineout – was also a fitting start to the captaincy of Otley-born Tindall, a World Cup winner and only survivor from that Millennium Stadium victory eight years ago, whose 67th cap was his first as on-field lieutenant.
But it was Toby Flood who stole the limelight with another stellar performance at fly-half.
"It was a very physical Test match and it was massive for us to get a good start," said Flood, who kicked 13 points.
"We didn't feel too much pressure; we understood what was against us and dealt with it.
"What we can't do now is what we did after Australia in the autumn – ease off the gas."
A game that had been simmering with rhetoric in the media build-up finally got the audience it deserved at the first whistle.
Congestion on the M4 due to high winds and, more pertinently, a Friday night kick-off that required fans to head into Cardiff on the one road available meant there were many green and red seats visible before Stephen Jones finally kicked off the 2011 Six Nations in front of a packed house.
And those that had overcome the traffic flow were rewarded with a full-blooded encounter typical of these two great rivals.
Noise levels showed no signs of abating even after Stephen Jones missed two penalties inside the opening six minutes.
England were slow to start but when they finally burst into Wales' half the quick hands of Ben Youngs, Tindall and Shontayne Hape sent Ben Foden scampering down the right, only for the full-back to be stopped in his tracks by Shane Williams.
It proved a pre-cursor for a 14th-minute move which saw England open the scoring. The quick hands of Youngs at the breakdown set up a sustained attack that was taken into overdrive by a deft turn of pace by Flood who jinked inside two defenders before releasing Ashton to score between the posts.
The Red Rose try-scoring hero of the autumn had got their spring campaign up and running. Flood converted and moments later added a penalty to confirm England's early superiority.
Offered a route back into the game by an over-eager England defence, Stephen Jones kicked a penalty to reduce the deficit, and it required a saving tackle from Foden on Morgan Stoddart to deny the winger a try after Mike Phillips had burst clear from inside his own half.
Wales, suddenly, were alive and their aggressive tactics induced England into mistakes with Louis Deacon sin-binned, allowing Stephen Jones to notch a second penalty.
Tindall's 14 men re-established order and a seven-point cushion before half-time with a second penalty by Flood but Wales had regained a foothold. The virtuoso James Hook might have been too far back to influence play but in former world player of the year Williams they had a man who, despite impending retirement, still has life left in his ageing legs.
Stephen Jones and Flood traded penalties at the start of the second half before Dylan Hartley – the man at the centre of Wales head coach Warren Gatland's pre-match goading – was held up at the line as England attempted to cut free of the home shackles. Then, after Phillips denied Tom Wood a debut try, the ball was sent to the right for Ashton to plunge over for his second touchdown, Flood converting.
Stoddart ensured a grandstand finish after scoring off a pass from centre Jonathan Davies, and James Hook got the majority of the 74,000 inside the stadium to their feet with a penalty, but although it was Flood's night, it was the dependable Jonny Wilkinson who ended the revival with a late penalty.
Wales: Hook, Stoddart, Roberts, Davies, Williams, S Jones (Byrne 67), Phillips (Peel 70); James, Rees, Mitchell, Davies, AW Jones, Lydiate, Warburton, Powell (R Jones 34). Unused replacements: Hibbard, Yapp, Thomas, Priestland.
England: Foden, Ashton, Tindall, Hape, Cueto, Flood (Wilkinson 67), Youngs (Care 63); Sheridan (Wilson 61), Hartley (Thompson 70), Cole, Deacon (Shaw 70), Palmer, Wood, Haskell (Worlsley 63), Easter. Unused replacements: Banahan.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).