WALES 30 ENGLAND 3
GLOUCESTER boy Alex Cuthbert stole two tries to break England’s Grand Slam hearts – and teach Stuart Lancaster’s men a vital lesson.
No team can win everything without a thriving attacking game.
However superior any defensive strategy, Wales showed England the highest accolades are still reserved for those that can conjure that little piece of creative magic.
And so on this evidence the Welshmen fully deserve their Six Nations title, claimed on points difference after swatting their toothless visitors aside.
Former Newent Community School pupil Cuthbert could so easily have been playing for the men in white at the Millennium Stadium.
Born in Gloucester, he honed his rugby trade at Hartpury College under Allan Lewis, who now heads up Wales’ academy coaching.
The 22-year-old Cardiff Blue has a Welsh mother and English father, and could easily have tried to progress through the red rose system.
Instead a red dragon though, he plundered two smart second-half scores to floor hapless England, who were once again devoid of any attacking acumen.
England must heed this lesson, and fast.
Forget teeing themselves up for the 2015 World Cup, head coach Lancaster has some pretty basic offensive tribulations to solve.
However muscular centre Brad Barritt is without the ball, he just fails to play in tandem with his fly-half in attack.
The bullish South African is a phenomenal defender – but has neither the wit, imagination nor skill-set to thrive in attack.
Wales exposed that shortcoming to brutal effect – any time they could isolate England’s outside-half, first Owen Farrell then Toby Flood, they forced pivotal turnovers.
While any back-row should provide continuity through securing possession at rucks, so should the modern inside centre.
The professional-era 12 should also offer options off the ball to his fy-half.
Barritt does none of this. Italy called him on it last week, and Wales took ruthless advantage – to steal the Six Nations crown and rubbish the mere notion of an England Grand Slam.
England were never in with a realistic chance, despite a solid first-half.
Woeful scrummaging stymied their opening opportunities, leaving them 9-3 adrift at the break.
Both tries came from turnovers, where Wales punished glaring shortcomings in England’s approach with ball in hand.
First Cuthbert stiff-armed Mike Brown to spark delirium in Cardiff’s packed rugby cathedral.
And then Justin Tipuric scythed towards the whitewash, before shipping on to Cuthbert, just to make sure.
Grand Slam? England got exactly what any nondescript side with an imagination void deserves – nothing.
Play the ball Mr Lancaster. Be bold and demand width and incision: otherwise your reign will go exactly the same way as every other England regime post 2003.
WALES: Tries: Cuthbert 2 (57, 66) Cons: Biggar (67) Pens: Halfpenny 4 (11, 18, 24, 52), Biggar (71). Drop-goals: Biggar (65).
ENGLAND: Pens: Farrell (21).
REFEREE: Steve Walsh (NZ).
HALF-TIME UPDATE: WALES 9 ENGLAND 3
FORGET the breakdown, if England do not sort out their scrum they will not break their decade-long Grand Slam duck.
Stuart Lancaster’s men have battled into several promising positions in the first-half of this Six Nations decider.
Allied to a lack of composure in the Welsh 22, England have also suffered untold woe at the set-piece.
England’s problems stem straight from loosehead Joe Marler, who cannot contain the more potent Adam Jones.
Dan Cole has fought manfully against that disadvantage, as well as trying to handle his own personal battle against Gethin Jenkins.
But even on their own ball England have no confidence whatsoever that they can retain possession.
So far, it is their greatest shortcoming in an absorbing encounter.
Right from the first scrum Jones bullied Harlequin Marler into total submission.
So confident were Wales after just one scrum, they opted for another set-piece when they could have taken a shot at goal.
In the end they settled for a penalty to open the scoring after their attack had no penetration.
Leigh Halfpenny and Owen Farrell traded penalties next, before the English scrum buckled again.
This time, so distracted by Marler’s shortcomings, Cole was caught out by Wales captain Jenkins, and Halfpenny did the rest with the boot.
Farrell missed a regulation penalty and Dan Biggar failed with a snatched drop-goal on the stroke of half-time.
England have handled the breakdown battle fairly admirably.
But unless they tidy up their scrum, this could be a long second-half.
NOT one corner of Cardiff is quiet.
This gritty city’s greatest seat of rugby reverberates with the roar of two tribes trapped under a closed roof.
The hosts hopeful, the invaders nervy, not nearly confident enough to expect.
The bands march with smart regimen, the choirs harmonise with sweet baritone: this is the Millennium Stadium, this is the Six Nations decider.
From the Valleys to the west, to the coasts of the north, they all come.
They all converge on this imposing citadel.
And they all sport their war paint.
Daffodil hats, red dragon flags or just the good old replica shirt.
The Welsh are all right where they should be: in their chaotic capital.
Pubs full to brimming by ten in the morning, the Caroline Street chippies offering tempting respite from the limitless booze.
And then back to the Millennium Stadium itself. Those lucky enough to sport the all-prized tickets know full well their fortune.
But neither set of fans is ready to trash-talk about victory.
If Wales win by eight points or more, the Six Nations title is theirs.
Should Stuart Lancaster’s England prevail, they sweep their first Grand Slam for a decade.
England have never completed a Grand Slam in Cardiff.
The passion, the intensity and sheer ardour underline exactly why.
With the roof shut, there is no escape for the rising decibels – they bounce straight back, a constant sensory assault.
England must first combat that ferocious wall of sound before even considering a route map to victory.
Gloucester’s Billy Twelvetrees takes his seat on the bench.
Is the 24-year-old Kingsholm revelation to be the missing spark in England’s misfiring midfield?
Or is he more a fail-safe, offering head coach Lancaster piece of mind, and the ability to change the game if required?
Surely the former Leicester playmaker is England’s long-term solution to a lack of backline creativity.
England struggled to make anything happen against Italy – but curiously their all-out defensive strategy could well serve them far better in this unforgiving cauldron today.
Lancaster’s side function best under intense pressure. Or at least, so they have to date.
Here is another such test of rearguard resolve and fortitude then.
If England force some counter-attack turnovers, they can pull off the improbable.
But if Wales dominate the breakdown through groundhog flankers Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton, the visitors could find themselves in tangible trouble.
All eyes centre-field.