Four England talking points after their comeback win over Wales
Having lost a Rugby World Cup semi-final 16 weeks ago after leading for ages versus South Africa, England would have left Twickenham on Saturday night buzzing at finishing on the right side of the ledger against Wales.
As was the case for the Springboks, the English didn’t lead for very long in contrast to the visitors who moved ahead on 17 minutes and stayed there until the 72nd – a full 55 minutes out in front without getting the job done.
It’s a damning reflection on Wales, who failed to build on their 14-5 interval lead and wound up getting held scoreless in the second half.
That malaise left the door ajar for England to finish in a flourish and make happy a frustrated fanbase that previously would have seen the English win just three of their 10 most recent home matches.
Not since 2019 have England ended the opening two weekends of the Guinness Six Nations with two Ws chalked up and their season is now alive with possibilities. Here are the RugbyPass talking points following their 16-14 comeback triumph:
Fortune favours the Dingwall
Let’s not lose the run of ourselves here over England being unbeaten in mid-February for the first time in five years. They were recent Rugby World Cup bronze medal winners but you won’t be rushing to the bookies to put the house on them just yet to win the championship as next-up Scotland are their bogey and Ireland, their early March opponents before the round five finale away to France, are many levels above.
However, Wales was a proper Test match between two middling, well-matched sides and the manner of the English comeback can only nourish their soul ahead of their Murrayfield assignment.
They did revert to type in Saturday’s second half, using the boot more than in the opening half.
But you couldn’t fault that given how, for instance, it was a splendid 50:22 kick from George Ford that put them deep into Welsh territory and possession from that resulting lineout crucially ended with Mason Grady’s sin-binning for a deliberate knock-on and Ford firing over the winning points off the tee.
However, amidst all the kicks from the hand (their game total was 32 by full-time, one less than Wales), England didn’t completely abandon the idea of getting the ball to the edge through the hands and that ambition was what got Fraser Dingwall in at the corner for his important try after battering away at the line under the posts proved fruitless.
The midfielder understandably revelled in the moment; his tackling wasn’t reliable in Rome and it was the same in London – his tally for the championship now reads eight missed tackles. The try, though, showed what he can do on the ball and it’s been a pity he hasn’t had it more these past two weekends.
The curiosity regarding Dingwall’s missed tackles – and his two penalty concessions – was that opposition number Nick Tompkins missed a team-high four for Wales.
It’s always claimed that outside centre is the most difficult backs position to defend in, but Saturday’s misses by the respective 12s suggested that the inside channel currently ain’t no walk in the park either.
‘Winning’ the second half
With England winning the second half 11-0 to follow on from last weekend’s 13-7 second-half ‘win’ in Rome, Borthwick made an intriguing reference in his post-game debrief that had RugbyPass delving into the stats bunker to assess its veracity.
Speaking about the impact of his bench versus the Welsh, the head coach suggested: “If I go back to prior to the World Cup, we identified England’s second-half performances deteriorated since around 2018 and we have put a big emphasis on second-half performances.
“What you have seen through that World Cup and examples last week and today is second-half performances that were more consistently improved.”
They have. Under Borthwick last year in his maiden Six Nations in charge, England lost four of their five second halves and of the combined championship second halves from 2018 to 2023, 13 were won, two drawn and 15 lost.
In contrast, nine of the 10 second halves in 2016 and 2017 were won, steeling campaigns where back-to-back titles were achieved at the beginning of the Eddie Jones era.
What especially helped the second-half ‘win’ on Saturday was the defensive attitude of their five replacement forwards who put in a hectic 33 tackles between them to repel the Welsh (this tackle tally includes Alex Coles’ first-half cameo for Ollie Chessum’s HIA).
A real battle at @Twickenhamstad ???
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 10, 2024
Spot-on Itoje quota
We highlighted in the round one Italy fallout that Maro Itoje giving away soft penalties for offsides wasn’t healthy for England. It was good to hear then that he was the one calling the shots regarding setting his team’s round two disciplinary target.
The concession of no more than seven penalties was the quota he deemed acceptable. Conceding six in the first half and one in the second wasn’t the way he would have envisaged the infringements stacking up, but Itoje and England ultimately did what they said they would do and it made a winning difference.
Look at how the Welsh didn’t get a sniff in the closing minutes of securing a penalty in England’s half to shoot for victory. This was fine game management that Itoje and co can be chuffed about.
"There’s a team here that stays in the fight…"
"We had a penalty count that was six-zero at half-time and two sin bins."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 10, 2024
The Ford conversion gaffe
Borthwick didn’t want to get involved in a discussion about the Ford gaffe that was the out-half being unable to get his conversion kick away after Ben Earl’s first-half try.
The race by multiple Welsh players off the line after Ford took a step was deemed legal by referee James Doleman and the two points that were squandered from in front of the posts would have generated a huge level of negativity had England lost by a narrow margin.
It’s not the first time that they have recently been lax from the kicking tee. Owen Farrell got lost in the moment in the Rugby World Cup clash with Samoa, embarrassingly getting counted out on the shot clock and being left unable to take the kick.
That mishap also wasn’t costly result-wise but that is twice now in the past six matches where something bizarre has deprived England of kick points. They surely can’t keep getting away with unnecessary stuff like that not hurting them.
We wonder might temporary consultant coach Andrew Strawbridge have a blunt word or two about it. Four weeks was the extent of his short-term deal with England for this Six Nations and it will be interesting to see how things finish up with the former All Blacks skills coach and whether there is scope to extend.
After all, he has the inside track from France 2023 on how to beat Andy Farrell’s Ireland, England’s March 9 opposition.