Despite all the hyperbole in the build-up, the contest surpassed expectations. It was physical but had no incidents of the predicted yellow and red card avalanche foreseen before the tournament. Even more unexpectedly both teams actually threw the ball around and tried to score tries. It made for a classic encounter for two legendary foes.
There was so much to enjoy and discuss. Wales produced one of their best performances in the Six Nations for years and it was heartbreaking for them to lose it at the death. The effort from the forward pack was immense, matching and getting the edge on their English counterparts. Ross Moriarty stood out with some bone crushing hits, including a shot on Owen Farrell that was a bit late. Credit to the Englishman he didn’t make a fuss. Got his breath back and carried on with the game. Jake Ball, with a face full of stitches, carried hard. Ken Owens hit all his lineouts. The scrum was solid and unlucky on a few referee calls. Alun Wyn Jones, Warburton and Tipuric gave everything as usual with some particularly crucial turnovers. For England Dylan Hartley was entirely anonymous, his most recent ban costing him crucial match fitness. Launchbury and Lawes carried and tackled themselves into the ground whilst Clifford and Itoje engaged in a fascinating battle with the more experienced Welsh flankers. But yet for all the Welsh effort up front it was, as is often the case, the backs which proved the difference.
Whilst the Welsh backline crafted a stunning try from first phase for Liam Williams they failed to take the opportunity of strong territorial positions. England however were clinical. George Ford had been highlighted as a defensive weakness, his lack of stature made for easy yardage gains. However his ability to time a pass and put a player in a hole more than made up for those inadequacies. The game will of course will be remembered for the final moments as Elliot Daly scored to seal the win. Wales had defended heroically on their line twice during the second half. It was what they did after that which proved their undoing. Firstly, Dan Biggar’s interception and dash up field was undone with the freshly introduced Scott Baldwin botching the subsequent lineout throw. Similarly Jonathan Davies failed to find the touchline from a relieving kick at a time when Wales needed to regroup and reorganise at a set piece. This then exposed the unfortunate Alex Cuthbert.
Running alongside the debate over whether the stadium roof would be open or not was the saga concerning George North. Having suffered a dead leg in Rome, but still having the ability to run in a try from distance, North looked unlikely to make the England game. Whilst the Welsh coaching team were perfectly within their rights to name him in the team and pull him out an hour before kickoff it stank of the childish shenanigans which England coach Eddie Jones had predicted. Equally predictable was that Alex Cuthbert, North’s designated replacement, was going to have his head in his hands at some point against England. Unfortunately for Wales it occurred at the very end as his inability to get Daly into touch cost Wales a victory they deserved given their efforts.
It is hard not to feel sorry for Alex Cuthbert. He tries hard and when he makes an error he looks close to tears. For instance when he lost the ball in contact, coughing up possession at an important time. Unfortunately he lacks basic rugby nouse but with the ball he runs hard, fast and straight which during 2013 proved enough. But how often since then have we seen tries conceded in that corner of the pitch when he is on the field? They have been in crucial moments such as against South Africa in the Rugby World Cup, flapping high with his hands rather than dipping his shoulder in. Yesterday he got caught in field giving Daly the outside space to accelerate into and once again flapped high instead of going in forcefully and taking the Englishman’s feet into touch. The reality is that he should never have been put in that position, not just because Jon Davies should’ve put the ball out but because of staggering ineptitude from the Welsh management.
Cuthbert has been let down by his bosses. Short on confidence and desperate to just do something right he shouldn’t be continually thrust into the glare of international rugby where criticism and sadly abuse are sure to follow. He should be spared this by those responsible for picking the team. Despite what people say Wales were not short of other options. Stef Evans might’ve been a long shot to start such a big game but Sam Davies, Gareth Anscombe or Matthew Morgan, who scored a superb counterattacking try against Bristol recently, could’ve covered fullback and allowed Leigh Halfpenny to cover on the wing. However this lack of thought is highly indicative of a management team who seem to make substitutions based on the time on the match clock alone.
With Ross Moriarty and Ken Owens flying it was of the astonishment of most that they were withdrawn from the action. Whilst you can understand a desire to get consistently strong performer Talupe Faletau on the field it seemed an odd call to take Moriarty off when he was standing out as a man of the match contender. Similarly Gareth Davies coming on for the controlling influence of Rhys Webb smacked of a decision which ignored events on the field. Scott Baldwin’s immediate impact was to deliver an abysmal lineout throw which had it hit the right target could’ve helped Wales seal the game. Jamie Roberts came on for Scott Williams and was understandably not immediately up to the pace of the game which caused a defensive error. The mind boggles why Cory Hill came on for Tipuric with moments to go particularly given Warburton was apparently carrying an injury. Given the seemingly equally matched players on the field it was perhaps those in the stands that proved the difference. All of England’s replacements made a positive impact and improved their teams performance. Wales’ changes cost the team momentum and ultimately the match.
Also kick off times: why did the match kick off at the 16.50? What’s wrong with 5pm? Similarly why did Italy v Ireland have a start time of 14.25? Dictated by television coverage no doubt.
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