Wounded Welsh dragon gets back up to slay England in thriller
Gareth Davies’s late try and Dan Biggar’s monster kick complete amazing comeback
Wales’ Gareth Davies dives in to score his side’s try in the Rugby World Cup Pool A match against England at Twickenham. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA
Somehow, it actually lived up to the hype and the seismic sense of occasion. Maybe even bettered it. There’s bravery, and there’s this kind of Welsh bravery. Already diminished by injuries to three first-choice backs, they lost three more here and yet somehow completed a comeback from 22-12, and 25-18 with 10 minutes remaining, to conjure the try of the tournament and one of this proud rugby nation’s greatest one-off wins.
Somehow, they have to pitch up against Fiji in five days’ time after a physically punishing game which ebbed with momentum shift after momentum shift.
England led for most of the night, but Wales were like a dog with a bone and withstood the injury enforced departures of Scott Williams, Liam Williams and Hallam Amos in rapid succession as they rolled up their sleeves and carried on with their comeback regardless.
Michael Cheika and his Wallabies will have enjoyed this as much as anyone, and next Saturday back here, England face them and the point of no return.
This game was also won in the coaches’ box. Wales re-adjusted after the break with a superb tactical shift, picking and going up the guts and committing way more to the breakdown to counter the English midfield blitz. All their big game players came to the party, with Dan Biggar kicking eight from eight (Owen Farrell landed seven from seven), and Alun Wyn Jones and Toby Faletau were immense.
Ultimately, England lost their way. In the first half, they had the much more solid set-piece, and seemed well worth the three to one penalty count by half-time at scrum time. Their lineout is always better with Geoff Parling running the show, whereas Scott Baldwin’s darts were less accurate and under much more pressure.
Wales couldn’t get their running game going against the white wall in front of them, which continually pushed up hard, with Dan Cole, Billy Vunipola and co often quicker over the ball. England won the collisions, which in turn generated generally quicker, go-forward ball for Ben Youngs than for Gareth Davies. Sam Burgess was a focal point of the English game, coming off the back of a maul or being launched up the middle, but his influence was limited and waned.
The atmosphere throbbed a good hour before kick-off. This truly felt seismic. God Save the Queen and Land of My Fathers were sung with as much gusto as they’ve ever been in this sometimes bitter rivalry. Never have the stakes been higher and after a near two-year build-up, the countdown to kick-off followed, aptly, Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones.
Wales started confidently and when England brought down the visitors’ maul Biggar opened the scoring inside three minutes of a very lively, tit-for-tat opening quarter. England’s response was strong, Ben Youngs operating off front-foot ball as the Welsh defence looked a little ragged. Youngs did butcher one blindside overlap with a chip and Scott Williams hounded Brad Barritt from a clever chip by Biggar as Wales swarmed through for a scrum.
But that only sparked their problems there and after a couple of runs, and a kick and chase, by the dangerous Anthony Watson, the Welsh scrum was done again for Farrell to draw the sides level.
There’d only been one drop goal in the tournament to date, and within 18 minutes both outhalves had attempted one. Biggar missed his, before landing a 45 metre penalty, whereas Farrell nailed his from 45 metres.
The simmering tension gave way to a near all-in stand-off; albeit more handbags than punching, when Mike Brown, as he does, ran 30 metres to have a nose-to-nose with Sam Warburton, after Bradley Davies sent Tom Wood somersaulting in the air with a low tackle. But he did look to use his left arm, and Jerome Garces thought so.
In any case, a third scrum penalty in three scrums immediately followed. This was becoming a real concern for the Welsh, and this time they didn’t have Paul James in reserve for Gethin Jenkiins, who was again in trouble with Garces, as was the case when the sides met in Cardiff last February.
After a big hit, bordering on high, by Burgess on Roberts, England stopped Welsh pick-and-goes and won a breakdown penalty. A nice strike move, with Billy Vunipola checking the drift, released Watson – coming off his wing – around the open side. Although his pass went to ground, Brown picked up, set up good ruck ball and Ben Youngs – who made a generally lively start – this time sniped an undermanned blindside and put Jonny May over. Farrell converted.
Welsh woes continued. Parling stole a Baldwin throw, May retrieved a long kick by Biggar to daringly elude three chasers for Brown to find tough yards back in the Welsh half and then Biggar was wrongly adjudged to have knocked on by Garces.
Finally a scrum penalty went their way for Biggar to nudge the penalty up the line into the Welsh 22 – it would probably have been in Leigh Halfpenny’s range – and their maul then coughed up a turnover scrum off a poorly executed Baldwin throw.
There was another mini victory for the English defence as Wales went through the phases, but Farrell missed a penalty to touch, and off a Welsh lineout they used Roberts as a decoy, Biggar skip-passing to Scott Williams who knifed through the Farrell-Burgess axis for a rampaging 50 yard break. Brown was penalised for not releasing and Biggar’s penalty left Wales somewhat relieved to head into half-time 16-9 down.
But their start to the second-half undid anything Gatland and co said in the interval. Biggar, most unusually, didn’t deal with a ball in the air by his left touchline, England went through more phases and Tom Francis made no effort to roll his considerable frame after tackling Barritt for Farrell to make it 19-9.
Even then, Ben Youngs broke away straight from the kick-off, but England would soon lose their best player when Youngs limped off with what seemed like a dead leg.
Farrell made it 22-12 but England’s discipline at the breakdown was almost single-handedly keeping Wales in the game. Their pack came alive with pick-and-go rumbles.
After a great take by Liam Williams, Wales went up the guts cleverly and effectively, and when Samson Lee picked and went, Cole was again done for going off his feet for Biggar to make it 22-15.
When Farrell kicked attacking ball away for Liam Williams to return with interest, the English outhalf even claimed it had been kicked from outside the 22 (which it hadn’t) and Biggar gave him a few verbals. When the Welsh pack then held up a maul, their first scrum since the introduction of Lee wasn’t much better, but Faletau broke superbly anyway.
After England were yet again pinged at the breakdown, Warburton not unreasonably pointed out to Garces that it was a sixth such offence. Biggar made it 22-18 with his sixth penalty from six attempts, and by some distance his best, from over 45 metres out near the right touchline.
Suddenly George North came alive too, but players were falling down repeatedly, as James Haskell replaced a hobbling Billy Vunipola, while Scott Williams looked to be seriously injured by what seemed a suspiciously late hit after a long floated pass to North by Barritt. The Welsh centre, who was having a fabulous game, was stretchered off, with Gatland later confirming a dislocated shoulder.
To compound this, Farrell knocked the ball from Liam Williams’s grasp and Mako Vunipola destroyed Lee for a penalty, and Richard Wigglesworth released May up the blindside from the maul, as Wales scrambled successfully and Tom Youngs couldn’t get a try-scoring pass away. But it came with yet more damage, as Liam Williams writhed in pain and Amos appeared to damage his elbow in handing off Farrell after the whistle.
So Rhys Priestland, an outhalf, came on for Liam Williams at fullback, and Lloyd Williams, a scrumhalf, replaced Amos on the wing. Yet their response was astonishing. In the face of the blitz, Alun Wyn Jones passed behind a screen to Biggar who released the backs out wide, Roberts drawing his man and releasing Lloyd Williams.
He used an old-fashioned, French infield cross kick which Gareth Davies brilliantly picked up on the run to score under the posts. Biggar tapped over the conversion to bring the sides level and then landed a wonderful 49 metre penalty to put Wales ahead for the first time with five minutes left after Brown held onto the ball after being tackled by North, who bounced to his feet.
The noise, already deafening, went up another notch when England opted to go up the line rather than take a penalty from wide to the right. It was an astonishing decision, in such a competitive group. A draw would have earned them an extra point, and more crucially denied Wales two.
And as soon as Parling hit the ground, the Welsh pack timed their counter drive to perfection, driving England over the touchline to earn a penalty. They then won another ball on the deck from an English penalty. Faletau, fittingly, held onto ball from a retreating scrum, and Priestland kicked the ball dead to euphoric Welsh celebrations.
But they’ll enjoy this for a while; indeed forever.
Scoring sequence: 3 mins Biggar pen 0-3; 12 mins Farrell pen 3-3; 16 mins Biggar pen 3-6; 18 mins Farrell drop goal 6-6; 24 mins Farrell pen 9-6; 27 mins May try, Farrell con 16-6; 39 mins Biggar pen 16-9; (half-time 16-9); 44 mins Farrell pen 19-9; 52 mins Farrell pen 22-12; 53 mins Biggar pen 22-15; 58 mins Biggar pen 22-18;
ENGLAND: Mike Brown; Anthony Watson, Brad Barritt, Sam Burgess, Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole; Geoff Parling, Courtney Lawes; Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Joe Launchbury for Lawes (half-time), Richard Wigglesworth for B Youngs (48 mins), Mako Vunipola for Marler (61 mins), James Haskell for Billy Vunipola (62 mins), Rob Webber for Tom Youngs (66 mins), George Ford for Burgess (69 mins), Kieran Brookes for Cole (71 mins). Not used: Alex Goode.
WALES: Liam Williams; George North, Scott Williams, Jamie Roberts, Hallam Amos; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Gethin Jenkins, Scott Baldwin, Tomas Francis; Bradley Davies, Alun Wyn Jones; Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton (capt), Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens for Baldwin (48 mins), Samson Lee for Francis (both 48 mins), Alex Cuthbert for S Williams (63 mins), Lloyd Williams for Amos, Rhys Priestland for L Williams (both 67 mins), Luke Charteris for B Davies (69 mins), Justin Tipuric for Tipuric (70 mins). Not used: Aaron Jarvis,
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).