England’s kick-pressure game failed to yield anywhere near the same level of results as it did against Ireland’s makeshift back three or the fallible France, putting the premise of England’s whole attacking game under the spotlight.
With the aerial prowess of Liam Williams and extra backfield reinforcements in Gareth Anscombe, Wales throttled up England’s main points pipeline by limiting mistakes and leaving them dry.
It wasn’t just that England’s out-of-hand kicking didn’t earn points, England’s execution of their own kick game imploded with Owen Farrell’s shrinking act in Cardiff. It was, upon review, one of the most disappointing performances seen by a flyhalf in a high-stakes game in recent memory.
After Elliot Daly’s missed opening long-range penalty attempt in the opening minutes, Gareth Anscombe hammers a long 22-restart which ends up in Farrell’s hands.
Without looking to set up a platform, he skies a bomb that makes all of 6-metres with most of his side still retreating. With offside teammates crowding the contest, Wales recover possession and take the ball in England’s half and take control for the next 10 minutes.
England’s resolute defence keeps Wales at bay despite two 22-entries, but England struggles to get out of their own half. After creeping back into position to put another contestable kick up, Farrell is charged down on his 40-metre line and England are forced to scramble back.
Only once Ben Youngs takes over all of the kicking duties do England start to win the arm wrestle.
Youngs finally pins Wales down deep into their 22 with smart two-phase kicking nearly a quarter of the match in. After Courtney Lawes pressures the lineout, Youngs takes a quick tap to restart play with England’s first real attacking possession only for Farrell to throw a forward pass and kill the opportunity a few phases later.
Farrell is bailed out when Kyle Sinckler wins a penalty from the ensuing scrum and England take the first three points of the match.
It took 25 minutes for Farrell to settle into this match and deliver his first tactical kick with any precision after Wales leveled proceedings with a penalty goal of their own.
Tom Curry’s try came on the back of Wales failing to exit and Farrell finally executing the kick-pressure game plan. Ken Owens has the ball punched out at back the maul following the Farrell touch-finder and England gain an easy entry into Wales 22, which leads to the opening try.
In a game where neither side is going to give an itch, one error can give away control and it can be 10-15 minutes before your side wins it back again, which seemed to happen to England a lot with Farrell the key culprit.
It was telling that England’s first attacking lineout didn’t come until the 30th minute, again on the back of a smart double-kick by Youngs that forced Liam Williams to clear from his own line.
This could have been a definitive blow to potentially put England up 17-3 at the break, but again it’s Farrell who comes up with a poor decision.
England starts with their ‘all-in’ maul that uses the backs to power up the pack but it breaks down. After two phases, Youngs’ pass, which is intended for a runner, hits the deck and bounces out the back to Farrell.
Without any advantage being played to England and time up on the clock, Farrell hoists an ‘all or nothing’ cross-field bomb that almost sails into touch if not for a bat-back by Jack Nowell.
Wales recover and happily end the half. It is a critical moment where the opportunity for points is squandered by a lack of composure and patience.
Early in the second half, England has decent field position and possession knocking on the door of Wales’ 22. After eight phases, Farrell tries the grubber into the corner but is charged by Anscombe. A minute later he tries to skin Wales down the shortest of blindsides and is run into touch.
Wales are able to eventually able to get out of this situation on the back of these mistakes and a lack of discipline from England’s pack. They notch another penalty goal to reduce the lead to 10-6.
After another Wales exit from the restart, Farrell is again charged own his on 40-metre. This time the deflected ball sails high and wide turning into an unintentional bomb that Williams catches and maneuvers in-field to set up possession nearly on halfway.
That’s three charge-downs on Farrell kicks, two unforced turnovers, and two poor bomb decisions inside 54 minutes of play without much positives on the other side of the equation. Then comes the Sinckler penalties that give Wales another three points.
Can we guess what happens next on England’s next territorial kick after Wales’ exit? Another kick error from the boot of Farrell as it goes out on the full. On England’s next attacking possession inside the Wales 22, Farrell pushes a flat pass to Nowell and it’s knocked on, turning over possession.
Everything he touched seemed to turn into coal. Would you believe that the pass that was knocked on by Mark Wilson and ended 34-phases later in a try to Wales lock Cory Hill, was in fact delivered from the base of the ruck by Owen Farrell, not Ben Youngs? It was.
There were shades of the same Farrell that showed up last November against the All Blacks and failed to clinically kick out-of-hand in spurts, except this time it was nearly a full 80-minute capitulation.
Farrell’s performance in this big-pressure game was far from his best, one that was strikingly bad given the praise lavished upon him in the weeks prior. Farrell is a proven class player but anyone pushing for the title of world’s best flyhalf can’t have a day like this. The execution was so bad you wonder why George Ford wasn’t put into the game at all. If Farrell was playing for Toulon, Mourad would be probably be asking for a DNA test.
England’s captain is a fiery competitor that doesn’t usually shrink to the occasion, proving to be a clutch goal-kicker at the highest level in the past. There is no doubt that he will bounce back from this game but that begs the question of how such a quality player can lay such an egg, especially with a Grand Slam within touching distance with Italy and Scotland around the corner.
There are concerns about whether this cookie-cutter game plan can be rolled out against everyone with similar results, but it is hard to gauge the full extent of its effectiveness with such limited execution from Farrell. Wales handled the kicking game without much fuss in the end, but it was made all the easier when only half of England’s primary kickers could execute.
Wales coach Warren Gatland questioned England’s ability to show up in big games during the post-game press conference, albeit safe with the knowledge his side had already bagged a 21-13 win over Eddie Jones’ side. Gatland’s comments were in part validated by the disappointing performance of England’s captain.
England fans will hope ‘Cardiff Owen’ doesn’t show up in October (or November) this year, and the real Owen Farrell stands up when it matters next.
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