When Johnny Williams scored his first international try after 10 minutes, it was the first time England had trailed in a match since they lost to France in Paris at the start of February. The Six Nations champions had dominated possession, but if they expected a side that at the start of the month sacked its defence coach to buckle after a few charges, they quickly realised that every point would have to be earned.
England threw the ball around from the kick-off, but with Wales’s line speed as keen it was in the days of Shaun Edwards, they were forced to bring in runners from deep. Wales’s defensive line held and England had to resort to the boot. They have developed the habit of finding a way to win: this was their seventh in a row, and if their dominance was not reflected on the scoreboard, they gave Wales nothing after Williams’s try.
It was from a kick that Wales took the lead, Henry Slade’s chip on halfway charged down by Dan Biggar who beat Jonny May to the bouncing ball and hacked on for Williams to get the better of George Ford in the 22 and usher the ball over the line before grounding it with his left hand.
A year ago, Williams was scoring a try for England against the Barbarians at Twickenham after a career that had taken in London Irish and Newcastle, but as a boy he had been taken by his father to the Principality Stadium to support Wales and after impressing in his debut against Georgia last week, he set about his countrymen with relish, thundering into tackles and putting dents into defenders.
He summed up his side at the end of what has been an underwhelming year after the departure of Warren Gatland and his management team. There was no crowd to light their fire, but Wales’s desire burned from within, stoked by white jerseys they were confronted by. Passive against Scotland and lacklustre against Ireland in the last month, they were into everything here.
It was what England needed after a run of matches in which the outcome had been decided long before the end. They quickly responded to Wales’s try, Maro Itoje’s disguised inside pass to Sam Underhill freeing Kyle Sinckler. Wales had to narrow their defence and England had only to put the ball through hands for Slade to score on the left wing.
England reverted to a kicking game but other than a few nervy moments for Leigh Halfpenny, Wales dealt with the bombardment comfortably and the only other points they conceded in the opening half, despite seeing little of the ball, came from two Owen Farrell penalties. After a few words from Eddie Jones at half-time England kept the ball in hand and among the forwards, and were rewarded after 10 minutes when Mako Vunipola finished off a series of rumbles near the Wales line.
With England having six forwards on the bench, a wearying Wales looked vulnerable to a second wave. The home side’s scrum had been its weakest point, four penalties in the opening half forcing Romain Poite to issue a warning to the Wales front row two of whom, Samson Lee and Ryan Elias, were taken off early in the second half.
The penalties started to turn and with Halfpenny, who had missed a long-range kick in the first period, nursing a strapped ankle, Biggar landed two to reduce the arrears to five points with 23 minutes to go.
It was a paltry reward for England’s wealth of possession but with Jones saying he would not be focusing on attack until the 2023 World Cup loomed larger, it was perhaps not surprising. They waited for Wales to crack but with Alun Wyn Jones leading by example, the men in red continued to relish every challenge. James Botham may have been winning only his second cap, but he brought Mako Vunipola to a shuddering halt early on and was never in awe of his surroundings.
Wales needed more possession to make it a true contest. Jones had questioned before the match the need for teams to have to announce their lineups within 48 hours of the start of the match because it denied the element of surprise, but the home side switched wings so Louis Rees-Zammit was not marking May.
In one sense, it made little difference which wing Rees-Zammit was on because most of his involvement came from England kicks rather than Wales’s handling moves and at the point where Wales sensed opportunity, England ground them down up front and in contact where the raw power of Underhill and the initiative of Itoje snuffed out their hopes.
They won a succession of penalties. Farrell converted two, and was wide with another, to give England their biggest victory in Wales since 2003, the year they won the World Cup. They will play in next Sunday’s final at Twickenham when they will be looking for their eighth successive victory, slowly burning three years out from the World Cup Jones has set his heart on.
Wales face Italy on Saturday in a meeting of also-rans. They will need to show that the appetite for battle they displayed against opponents they enjoy defeating more than any other is lasting. This was a typical underdog display, but they still have it all to prove. England were comfortably superior.