England kept their 2022 Six Nations hopes alive with a 23-19 victory against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday.
The home side notched up 12 points in the first half thanks to the boot of Marcus Smith, and their lead was then extended by Alex Dombrandt early in the second half as he profited from a poor Wales lineout to score England’s only try.
Wales fought back through tries from Josh Adams and Nick Tompkins but two penalties kept England ahead.
Kieran Hardy’s try made the game competitive until the final whistle, but Eddie Jones’ men were the victors.
England are now third in the table behind the unbeaten France, and Ireland who they face next at Twickenham in two weeks time and two victories could be enough to crown England champions.
But what does the result against Wales show us, and are England really title contenders?
England did just enough to win this match but the display was uninspiring as they let their first half lead slip to a resurgent Wales.
Across the tournament so far, Jones’ side have seemed trapped between the old and the new, yet to form a clear identity and this match was further proof of that.
Jones has discarded former trusted stalwarts George Ford and Jamie George as both had to be content with a place on the bench, whilst Billy and Mako Vunipola, once the drivers of England’s attacking momentum have not featured in any matchday squad.
Owen Farrell and Anthony Watson are unavailable for the whole tournament through injury and it remains to be seen where they would fit into this new England side without a dent in continuity.
In their place, Jones has introduced hot shot Smith at fly-half, Freddie Steward at full-back and Dombrandt at number eight, who impressed on Saturday and have done well throughout.
As a result, England have looked stuck between the team that made its way to the 2019 World Cup final before being outsmarted by South Africa and a new England spearheaded by the talent of Smith and backed up by Steward, Dombrandt and others.
Despite this, the most obvious miss for this match was a player from the old guard.
Manu Tuilagi would have added speed and brawn to a backline which failed to make inroads into the Wales defence.
The centre was unavailable for this game due to a late injury and it is uncertain whether he will be fit in time for the crucial match against Ireland.
Jones has a lot to ponder before the crucial match against Ireland.
It remains to be seen whether he will double down on England’s new players, giving them the licence to play their expansive rugby or go for the tried and tested method of a strong set piece fronted by the old.
Jones often talks about World Cup cycles, claiming that his side will peak when necessary at the game’s biggest tournament.
But England fans want to see exciting, winning rugby now, especially as rivals France have been able to formulate an exciting side around the attacking maverick Antoine Dupont to storm their way to the top of the Six Nations table.
Reasons to be excited
New players: England’s new guns put in inspired performances in this victory, as they have done throughout the tournament.
Smith kicked six penalties and added sparkle to England’s play, whilst scrum-half Harry Randall was busy particularly during the first period.
Dombrandt smashed his way into the Wales defence repeatedly and topped his performance off with an opportunist try.
Player experience: Jones billed this game as the quarter final of the Six Nations and from that perspective England did enough to get over the line.
Their young core are relatively inexperienced but this match will have given that confidence that they can handle the big stage and do what is needed when called upon.
They will need to back that up with a win in just under a fortnight’s time against Ireland, in what presumably Jones will be telling them is the equivalent to a semi-final.
Cause for concern
Attack: Apart from moments of brilliance from Smith, England failed to create attacking momentum.
They made fewer metres and fewer line breaks than Wales as their back line failed to punch holes in the Welsh defence without the influential Tuilagi.
Italy match aside, England have scored two tries in two games and 66% of their points total has come from the boot of Smith.
In the match against Wales, the try was rather fortunate as a poor Welsh line-out from inside their own 22 was seized upon by Dombrandt.
England play Ireland at Twickenham on 12th March in what promises to be a tightly fought game in front of a raucous home crowd.
England will be hoping they can set up a final day title decider against France in Paris a week later but they face a stern Irish side.
Ireland thrashed 12 man Italy 57-6 to bounce back from their defeat to France in round two.
Their opening day victory against Wales was their best performance of the tournament as they sparkled to a 29-7 victory at the Aviva Stadium.
England will pip Ireland by one score to set up a humdinger of a match against France at the Stade de France in the final round of the tournament. ENGLAND WIN.
Scotland 20 England 17 – 5th February
Italy 0 England 33 – 13th February
England 23 Wales – 19 26th February
England V Ireland 12th March
France V England 19th March