England bagged early World Cup bragging rights by clawing back a 10-point deficit to claim a thrilling 21-16 victory over Wales in the opening match of the Six Nations on Friday.
Wales stormed out to a 10-0 lead in the opening nine minutes at an electric Millennium Stadium after a Rhys Webb try converted by Leigh Halfpenny, who also added a penalty.
But the visitors, missing a raft of first choices through injury, responded with tries from Bath backs Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph, George Ford kicking a conversion and three penalties, as Halfpenny added another and Dan Biggar a drop-goal for the home side.
“I just wanted to knock it over for the lads,” said man of the match Ford.
“The performance — especially by the pack — was outstanding. We felt comfortable in the first half but had a bit of poor start.”
Joseph said that England believe they have the strength and talent to take on any side in World Cup year.
“It’s incredible. No greater feeling to come here to Wales and win, probably one of our greatest rivals,” he told the BBC.
AFP / Glyn Kirk
Wales’s scrum half Rhys Webb (C) kicks the ball clear during the Six Nations international rugby union match between Wales and England at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, south Wales, on February 6, 2015
“But the boys dug deep and got the win we deserved. There’s a lot of confidence in the side and we’ve got the belief we can attack and penetrate.”
Wales captain Sam Warburton admitted his side fell off the pace after the interval.
“We’re very disappointed, it’s not the start we wanted. The second half we struggled to get momentum and it seemed like England were on top for large parts,” he said.
The victory, coming after the 30-3 humiliation England suffered in the corresponding fixture two years ago, sets up the World Cup it hosts nicely, with the English drawn in the same tough pool as Wales, Australia and Fiji, with only two teams qualifying for the knock-out phase.
After a five-minute delay to the kick-off, Halfpenny booted a touchline penalty in the second minute after Jonny May infringed.
– Messy scrum –
English woes were compounded after a messy first scrum, re-set by French referee Jerome Garces.
AFP / Glyn Kirk
England’s centre Jonathan Joseph (R) evades the tackle of Wales’s wing George North to score a try during their Six Nations international rugby union match at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, south Wales, on February 6, 2015
The visiting pack put a shove-on in the second scrum, but Welsh No 8 Taulupe Faletau broke blind, sucked in the defence and popped the ball to Webb, who skinned May on the outside for a try Halfpenny converted.
England came firing back up the field and went through the phases, including from an 11-man maul.
The ball was mispassed right, Mike Brown was left with no room but dinked in a grubber behind Halfpenny to which Watson latched on to cross the whitewash for his maiden international try.
Ford’s conversion came back off the posts, but Halfpenny made no mistake with his second penalty from the left touchline close to halfway.
George North went off for a concussion check after clocking a full-blooded kick to the head by English lock Dave Attwood that went unpunished by Garces, who had already awarded the visitors a penalty duly kicked by Ford.
Halfpenny missed a chance to restore Wales’ lead, but Biggar fell back into the slot to nail a majestic 40-metre drop-goal on the stroke of half-time to leave Wales 16-8 up.
England started the second period just as the home side did the first and went on to score 13 unanswered points.
AFP / Ben Stansall
England players (L) celebrate after the final whistle in the Six Nations international rugby union match between Wales and England at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, on February 6, 2015
After going through 20 phases in the Welsh 22m area, Joseph replicated his outstanding form with Bath by jinking his way through weak tackles by Webb and Biggar for a fine try converted by Ford.
The English fly-half had the chance to hand his team the lead for the first time just moments later, but saw his long-range penalty drift wide.
Wales winger Alex Cuthbert produced a great try-saving tackle on flanker James Haskell, but was then shown a yellow card for failing to roll away.
Ford kicked the resulting penalty and Stuart Lancaster’s men led 18-16 with the home side looking ragged in defence.
Attwood was denied a late try for obstruction, leaving the Welsh side with five minutes to respond.
But despite their best attacking efforts, England held firm and had the last word when Ford nailed a 45-metre penalty for a deserved victory.