England rose blooming as dragon fire is doused
Lancaster’s side has taken massive stride forward
Luther Burrell of England beats Leigh Halfpenny of Wales to score their second try during yesterday’s match at Twickenham. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
There is a slightly old-fashioned feel about a Triple Crown these days but England will hope yesterday afternoon is the prelude to an extremely bright future.
Some victories retain a lingering significance and, with Wales in their Rugby World Cup pool next year, this could be one of them. Even if Stuart Lancaster’s side fail to nick this year’s Six Nations title, they will still have taken a massive stride forwards.
Already they have managed what no English side has done since the World Cup winners of 2003 and beat the Welsh, the Irish and the Scots in the same season. But for a couple of wicked bounces of the ball in Paris last month they would be within one win of a grand slam with this weekend’s trip to Italy to come. As it is, they now need to defeat the Italians and hope France do them a favour by beating Ireland later the same day. A convenient draw at the Stade de France would be even better.
Either way Warren Gatland has received a swift answer to the rhetorical question he posed during the endless pre-match build-up. If England had any boys in their team six weeks ago, they are all men now.
Without Leigh Halfpenny’s outstanding goal-kicking the defending champions would have come a horribly distant second, if not by quite the same margin as England did in Cardiff a year ago. That 30-3 Millennium Stadium massacre suddenly seems an awfully long time ago.
It may be that Gatland and the Welsh management will find this result similarly hard to shake off. There is little point having one of the best back-lines in world rugby if you kick away the majority of your ball and England’s pace and intensity visibly discomforted a few of their older forwards.
Punished every infringement
Had Halfpenny not routinely punished every tiny English ruck infringement with three points, the amount of fire breathed by the dragon on this occasion would barely have toasted a crumpet.
Was this the day the Welsh Lions’ exploits in Australia finally caught up with them? Quite possibly but England were also without the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft, Dan Cole, Alex Corbisiero, Geoff Parling, Billy Vunipola and Marland Yarde.
Stick them all back in alongside Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Mike Brown, Danny Care, Luther Burrell and Owen Farrell, all consistently impressive in this championship, and there is the emerging nucleus of a team which could conceivably take on all-comers when the rest of the world come to play in 2015. Lancaster’s team have now beaten every Tier One nation in the past two years with the exception of the Springboks, against whom they drew in Port Elizabeth in 2012.
With Ben Morgan and Billy Twelvetrees also taking the opportunity to ink themselves into Lancaster’s plans – there was even a debut for George Ford in the closing seconds – the Twickenham rose garden has not bloomed with such promise in more than a decade.
England are even beginning to master the knack of starting well, Care darting over in the fifth minute after his quick tapped penalty caught the Welsh defence fast asleep. Given they had previously gone 277 minutes without scoring a try against their opponents, it further reinforced the sense of a team ready to put the past behind them.
Even the French referee, Romain Poite, felt the force of the home team’s physicality when Lawes powered straight into him; Wales, caught in a straitjacket of their own tactical making, were reduced to poaching penalties at the breakdown to feed Halfpenny’s insatiable kicking habit.
Even when they did break clear there was none of the ruthlessness with which Gatland’s teams are normally associated in big games. George North needlessly kicked ahead with Dan Lydiate outside him in space, while Brown expertly chopped down Jamie Roberts when the centre did finally find himself in open country.
Perhaps England should have won by more. Wales, not to mention the Southern Hemisphere’s finest, will still take some knocking over next year. When Gatland suggested afterwards that both teams will be stronger by the time the next World Cup comes round, he was certainly correct in England’s case.