Mission Grand Slam remains on.
Mission history-making third-straight title remains on.
But boy, England were made to work hard for victory at Twickenham on Saturday and Ireland will be licking their lips at the potential of upsetting the champions on home soil come the tournament finale on March 17th.
Depending on how you want to look at it, England’s 12-6 victory over Wales paints very contrasting pictures.
After a hot offensive start, England’s ability to transform breaks and territory into scoring opportunities wilted towards the end of the first half. Their ability to maintain possession wilted in the second half, too.
Admittedly, the conditions were far from favourable for free-flowing attacking play, but the old enemies of English rugby – indiscipline and breakdown vulnerabilities – again came to the fore and threatened to add just the second blemish to Eddie Jones’ stint as England’s head coach.
But then you have the other half of the performance and that was England’s heroic second half defensive stand. In an outpouring of defensive line-speed, trust in one another and sheer determination, England stemmed an extremely resilient Welsh surge.
The intensity of the English defence forced Wales into errors, turnovers and just saved the home side in a game which they had started so well and had looked as if they might put the visitors away in the opening 30 minutes.
How do you view a Test like that if you’re Jones?
Ultimately, you’ve recorded another win, despite being at far from your best, and that must be pleasing.
There were mitigating factors, however.
The TMO’s disallowed try from Gareth Anscombe seemed extremely harsh, with the full-back looking as though he definitely got downward pressure on the ball, and had that been given, it could have changed the complexion of the entire game.
The breakdown was a dogfight throughout and one that England struggled with. They did reasonably well breaking the gain-line and keeping on the front-foot in the first half and in the early forays of the second half, but as soon as Wales managed to inject some intensity into their line-speed, England started to struggle.
The home side gave up multiple penalties at the breakdown, often for flopping over the ball and it was only really Courtney Lawes who seemed to have consistent success clearing out the predatory Welsh forwards when England were kept on or close to the gain-line.
Beyond the breakdown infractions, something else that will have Ireland licking their lips is the carrying heights of England’s forwards.
Referee Jérôme Garcès was generous to England in calling tackle completed and there were several times when it looked as if the Welsh tacklers had help up their man and set up a maul, only for the Frenchman to deny them and give the English attack the opportunity to recycle.
Given the proficiency Ireland have in that area, they will undoubtedly see that as somewhere they can have plenty of joy against England.
With Sam Simmonds going off at half-time with an injury, England also lacked the carrying from their back-row that they needed to maintain the control they had on the game at that point. If that injury prevents Simmonds from playing a role in two weeks’ time against Scotland, Jones will be banking on Nathan Hughes being fully-fit or Zach Mercer capable of stepping up and making his debut, otherwise England will look out of balance in the back-row again.
The inside centre had an almost peerless game, orchestrating everything that was good about England’s attack in the opening quarter and making key defensive plays in the second half, including a try-saving tackle on Aaron Shingler and a key turnover with Wales camped deep inside England’s 22.
Mike Brown and Mako Vunipola were also key contributors, Jonathan Joseph’s blitz-and-drift defence kept Wales quiet in the wider channels and both Maro Itoje and Chris Robshaw impressed with their work rate and stamina over the 80 minutes. Jonny May was also on hand to finish off two well-worked English tries.
The set-piece continued to tick along nicely, with Dylan Hartley having 100% success at the lineout and the much-improved scrum, which had struggled in recent years, coping well with the step up in class that Rob Evans and Samson Lee provided.
Between Warren Gatland’s assertion Wales were the fitter team coming into the game and his side’s strong finish, there would seem to be some weight behind that, but defending is tiring work and England did not fail in their defensive duties late in that game. Farrell, Vunipola and Itoje were all making critical one-on-one tackles and defensive plays in the final 10 minutes and though under pressure, England looked composed and far from flagging at the death.
During Jones’ tenure, England’s attacking play has improved significantly, but there have been performances here and there where Paul Gustard’s defence has taken the fore and led England to priceless wins and this was one of those days.
In fact, it was one of those days that helps create an aura around a team. It’s not an aura of invincibility, but it’s an aura of being bloody hard to beat.
Neither team started the tournament in impressive fashion, but at home, against their most hated enemy, they are bound to provide stern tests of England’s mettle.
If England are serious are about retaining their title, seeing off Ireland on St Patrick’s Day and winning a Grand Slam, they will need to take significant steps forward in those two fixtures, particularly with their work at the breakdown.