In a huge year for world rugby, not least so for old enemies Wales and England who will face each other later on this year in the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup, it was the visitors England who won the first battle, edging out a disappointing Welsh side by 21 points to 16.
It is a fixture that over the years has never let us down and this match was no different. It had everything – crunching tackles, bloodied noses, questionable referee decisions and a couple of concussions. England arrived at the Millennium Stadium desperate to avenge their previous visit to Cardiff, where they were mauled 30-3 and saw their grand slam hopes destroyed in the process. Wales, on the other hand, would have been looking to lay down a marker ahead of a huge World Cup pool and a promising fixture list for this year’s RBS Six Nations.
Following an unbelievable pre-match show due to the pyrotechnics provided to turn the heat up on a cold Friday night in Cardiff, along with a typically breathtaking recital of the national anthem, Wales stormed into an early 10-0 lead after ten minutes following an early monster kick from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny and a try from Rhys Webb, after a huge scrum and a great offload by Taulupe Faletau.
Shades of the epic encounter two years ago were appearing, but England were desperate to avoid a repeat. They ensured this by responding with a try of their own, as Bath winger Anthony Watson got the bounce of the ball following Mike Brown’s grubber kick and crashed over the line. Despite Ford’s missed conversion, England had halved the deficit.
The atmosphere grew as the match progressed and as Halfpenny struck another three points and George Ford found his first successful kick of the match, the scores stood at 13-8, before some quick thinking from Dan Biggar resulted in a sweetly struck drop goal right before half time to take the sides in at 16-8.
Following the interval, England came out firing on all cylinders and Wales immediately found themselves on the back foot, defending wave after wave of English attack before missed tackles from Webb, Biggar and Jonathan Davies allowed Jonathan Joseph the easiest of tries on his first test start to give England a somewhat undeserved lead. This time Ford did hit the conversion from right in front of the sticks to bring the score up to 16-15.
England returned to the Welsh red zone once again and James Haskall seemed certain to grab a try on his return to the England set up before a combination of Alex Cuthbert and the post repelled the Englishman, before referee Jerome Garces of France claimed to spot an offense from Cuthbert, resulting in the winger taking a sear in the sin bin.
Whilst the referee was playing the advantage of this offense, a last ditch tackle from George North saw him clash heads with Richard Hibbard and unsurprisingly came off second best, falling to the floor seemingly unconscious. Amazingly, North was allowed to return to the field, something the World Rugby authorities will investigate following the new protocols put in place for concussion.
Ford slotted the resulting penalty to put England’s noses in front and a scrappy couple of minutes ensued, as the atmosphere grew tense around the stadium. Some good work at the breakdown from replacement Billy Twelvetrees gave Ford the opportunity to put the game out of reach for the Welsh, which he took well to end Welsh hopes of another grand slam before they had really got going, as Garces brought an end to the match.
Wales will be bitterly disappointed with the result as they will be aware that on paper their squad was far superior and should have done better on the day, especially in attack where they seemed dull and uninspired. Referee Garces has been questioned especially on his refereeing of the scrum, which seemed to favor the men in white, who march on looking for a much-needed grand slam, which has evaded them for some time now. Wales on the other hand know all is not lost, as they lost their first game in 2013 but went on to win the championship. They will now be looking to repeat that feat.