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Five takeaways from the England win over Wales in the Six Nations

By Liam Heagney
Wales' Alun Wyn Jones with England's Owen Farrell at full-time (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

The round three table makes painful reading for Wales after their latest loss to England. Their attacking bluntness is portrayed in their scoring of a tournament-worst 27 points in 240 minutes, their defensive flakiness is seen in their concession of another tournament-worst 89 points and the most damning figure of all is how they have a big fat zero when it comes to tournament points and are bottom of the pile, a point behind Italy whom they next play away.

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Coach Warren Gatland was at pains in Saturday’s aftermath in claiming his team “are not miles away” and there was quite the compliment also paid by England’s Steve Borthwick and Owen Farrell regarding the competitiveness of the Welsh despite all their head-wrecking contractual disputes.

Gatland reckoned the additional time with his team this summer in preparation for the World Cup will eventually be a game-changer, suggesting that “the improvement in strength, power and fitness will have a significant impact in terms of the performance of this team going forward”.

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That, though, can only be considered a hypothesis as the current reality is that Wales are in a spiral where the signs are that there is more chance of a Gareth Jenkins-type 2007 World Cup unfolding than any repeat of the semi-final-reaching 2019 campaign experienced under Gatland.

Listening to Gatland post-game in Cardiff was a joyless experience in contrast to the enthusiasm portrayed by Borthwick. On paper, both coaches are just three matches into their new reigns.

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However, there must surely be a fear that Gatland coming back to Wales was the wrong appointment and that the successful ducking and diving of times past is now much too stale to fully motivate players who have heard it all before from him. Some rugby fans would have you believe that Gatland is the best coach anywhere in the professional era but nothing he has done this past month with Wales backs that up. Could it be that he is finally over the hill as a master motivator?

Saturday’s key moment
One of the reasons why covering a match at the Principality is such a delight is the location of its press box so close to the action unlike at the other Six Nations stadiums. Located in the lower tier on halfway and not in the clouds like in Paris and Dublin, the close-ups of the action you get in Cardiff when play is on the near side are second to none, especially when it comes to appreciation of meaty, mightly collisions and the skills involved in jumping to gather the aerial ball.

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Having Freddie Steward repeatedly soar high was something to treasure. So too the grunt and the heft that went into incidences such as Kyle Sinckler drilling Alun Wyn Jones backwards, as happened with the help of Maro Itoje in the first half. There was also much admiration for those who successfully jackalled over the ball – honourable mention here to Jack Willis, Lewis Ludlam and Justin Tipuric for their masterclass moments in defence.

The fiercest period of intensity, though, was felt in those minutes when England were brutes in hitting back so sharpish following the concession of the soft Louis Rees-Zammit intercept try. Sinckler’s try was the day’s key moment and Borthwick understandably enjoyed the intelligence and composure that went into this act of defiance.

“The players had been in Cardiff (before) and had not responded to setbacks that way. It shows how the team is growing with Owen’s leadership,” chirped the England boss. Without a doubt, his team’s fast-twitch response impressively deadened the home crowd just when it was set to ignite.

23-man game, my arse
A penny for the thoughts of Marcus Smith. You imagine the first-choice Eddie Jones pick could put up readily enough with having lost his place in the starting lineup to Farrell as long as he was getting sufficient time to make a credible impact off the bench. However, Borthwick’s conservatism has stifled that notion, restricting a player who had worn the No10 shirt in 15 successive Test games to two blink-and-you-miss-it cameos as a replacement.

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Saturday’s tripe of making a triple substitution for the final play of the game with just seconds left on the clock was nonsense and you wonder what temporary attack coach Nick Evans made of it all. He arrived on the England scene just weeks ago convinced he could mould Smith and Farell into a compelling 10/12 partnership only to have Borthwick torch that blueprint and leave Evans’ Harlequins colleague stewing in his tracksuit on the sidelines.

Borthwick defended his latest actions, claiming it didn’t feel right for him to give Smith and Henry Arundell any more time than the seconds they did get in Cardiff. “You can upset the rhythm of a team if you make too many changes, so that is why I held back,” he insisted.

He was perfectly entitled to that view as long as he now doesn’t turn around in the coming fortnight before France and talk out the other side of his mouth claiming that Test rugby is a 23-man game. My arse. It simply isn’t going by Borthwick’s bench tactics.

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Super Rugby chit-chat
The last thing you would have fancied getting mentioned during Saturday evening’s respective media briefings was chit-chat about Super Rugby Pacific and how they too seemingly kick the leather off the ball down there. Kicking was a hot topic in a negative-sounding way judging by how questions on it were formulated, but England were having none of the suggested criticism that they overdid that aspect of play.

“Kicking is a big part of the game, there are a lot of tries scored off kicking and we are looking to get better with every aspect,” shrugged skipper Farrell before Borthwick revealed what he had got up on the morning of the Test match.

“It [kicking] is part of the contest. I was watching Crusaders versus the Chiefs and you see kicking being a big part of Super Rugby as well. I don’t know necessarily what is going to happen at the end of round three, but the two teams that had kicked most metres going into round three were France and Ireland.

“They are the top two teams in the world so it is a part of the game. When you play against teams that have great line speed defence like Wales, then it is only sensible to consider all options.”

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Tackling the elephant in the room
Fair play to Gerald Davies, the WRU president whom RugbyPass spotted walking through the busy Cardiff streets a few hours before kick-off. It would have been easy for the governing body to ignore all the damaging controversies that have affected rugby in Wales in recent months.

However, Davies is different gravy and no sooner had you turned over from the team list on page three of the official match programme was there an article from the administrator that immediately got stuck into the embarrassing mess.

“This is a solemn time for us in Welsh rugby which, I must confess, is putting it mildly. In the forefront have been major complaints, recriminations and occasional diversions, hostile censures and home truths,” he wrote in his compelling opening line.

“When no sooner than one sore has been attended to and on the way to being healed with some relief, then another blemish arises elsewhere to concentrate the mind. It has been a harrowing time, unrelenting in its comment and judgement. We are sorry it has come to this. It would be a relief to be able to take pause.”

Such a pause is unlikely, though. Now with the dreaded wooden spoon set to dominate the headlines in the Welsh buildup to March 11 in Rome.

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