Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Wales slam door on England's Grand Slam dream

Wales 30 England 3

CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 16:  The Wales back row of Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau pose with the Six Nations trophy following his team's victory during the RBS Six Nations match between Wales and England at Millennium Stadium on March 16, 2013 in Cardiff, Wales.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 16: The Wales back row of Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau pose with the Six Nations trophy following his team's victory during the RBS Six Nations match between Wales and England at Millennium Stadium on March 16, 2013 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 16: Dejected England head coach Stuart Lancaster looks on following his team's defeat during the RBS Six Nations match between Wales and England at Millennium Stadium on March 16, 2013 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 16: Tom Wood of England jumps for a high ball with Jonathan Davies of Wales during the RBS Six Nations match between Wales and England at Millennium Stadium on March 16, 2013 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 16: Mike Brown of England is wrapped up by James Hook of Wales during the RBS Six Nations match between Wales and England at Millennium Stadium on March 16, 2013 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Grand Slam branding remains in the truck after the RBS Six Nations match at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

There were chants of "easy, easy" long before the end, but this win, and Wales's retention of the Six Nations Championship was about so much more than schadenfreude at a horribly outclassed England's failure to capture the Grand Slam.

Had it not been for a shambolic first half here against Ireland on the opening weekend of this Championship, Wales might have been celebrating a fourth Grand Slam in nine years, beyond anything achieved by the great teams of the 1970s.

By comfortably outstripping England on points difference as the teams finished four wins each, the title was deservedly theirs and the manner of its delivery against the old enemy may have made it just as sweet as the Slams of 2005, 2008 and 2012, all completed amid similar scenes of tumult at this spectacular stadium.

Wales's punishing defence conceded no tries for the fourth match running – the previous three were wins away to France, Italy and Scotland – but here they added two scintillating second-half tries by the Cardiff wing Alex Cuthbert and buried England, who had only brief flashes of changing the course of one of the most one-sided title deciders you are likely to see.

Wales were winning the battle for millimetres in the early stages, building an early penalty count of four to nil against England and forcing their opponents into clumsy passes that went to ground. The upshot was a 6-0 lead from two penalties by Leigh Halfpenny (right). Owen Farrell, playing his first match in three weeks after a quad-muscle injury, replied from 40 metres in off a post on 20 minutes, but with England's scrum creaking and Tom Youngs popping up, Halfpenny's third kick sailed over from 40 metres for 9-3.

The rest of the half was exciting but also undeniably desperate as long passages of play swept back and forth: when England had a couple of half-breaks by Mike Brown on the left wing they went unfinished. A Welsh scrum-collapse allowed Farrell to kick to touch on the home 22-metre line; Tom Youngs overthrew, but Jamie Roberts for Wales kicked out on the full, giving England another go on the opposite wing. This time their attack died when Ben Youngs – whose fallible service gave no great indication that he was any more comfortable as one of only five England players in the starting XV to have played here before than those who had not – chucked a pass straight to Dan Biggar for a counter that, via Roberts, had George North stretching his legs only for Brown's tap tackle to chop the wing down just inside the England half.

Another run by North also generated crowd shrieks of anticipation but Farrell did well to chase him down. In the midst of it all, a Farrell penalty in the 27th minute drifted wide to the left and, as the last act of the first half, a nicely struck drop at goal by Biggar met the same fate.

When England hit their line-out target it was usually Tom Croft, but you wondered how much oomph the Leicester flanker had on his first Test start for a year – oomph in this kind of match meaning an incessant need for weapons-grade piledriving. Mako Vunipola came on at loosehead for England and adopted a scrummaging position so low to the ground that Adam Jones, that wily, fantastic veteran of three Welsh Grand Slams just looked at him, laughed and refused to engage. Cue the inevitable Wales penalty and more pressure on England. A kick out on the full by Alex Goode brought Roberts crashing past Chris Robshaw's tackle in midfield and ruck after ruck in the red-zone. Here the callow Englishmen of their post-2011 World Cup revamp under Stuart Lancaster battered in with finger-in-the-dyke tackles, but eventually a penalty by Halfpenny gave Wales their nine-point lead with 51 minutes gone.

And then came the moment that condemned the red rose, as much changed in personnel from two years ago as it was, to the same disembowelling feeling, as their last stab at a Slam in Dublin in 2011 when they were well beaten by Ireland. The replacement Wales hooker Ken Owens squeezed a turnover out of Geoff Parling, Justin Tipuric, Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies whipped the ball to the right and Cuthbert thundered 30 metres for the try.

Farrell missed a penalty, Biggar dropped a goal from 25 metres after 64 minutes and it was 20-3, rendering the mental arithmetic all but academic (it would be Wales on plus-56 to England's plus-16 by the end). England shifted Manu Tuilagi to the wing and Brown to full-back, but Brown's next act was to be the sad stooge in Wales's and Cuthbert's second try. The Welsh ploy of pairing Sam Warburton and Tipuric as flankers had joyous results as the former burst up the middle and his openside mate got free on the right, first using Cuthbert as the decoy to draw Brown in, then giving the short scoring pass for the giant wing to celebrate his ninth try in 18 Tests. Biggar swept over the conversion and a penalty. Anyone thinking of the summer's Lions tour was envisaging many more red jerseys than white.

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