Reborn England crush Wales to set up rousing Six Nations finale
Future looks bright for superior England, but Ireland remain favourites for the title
England thumped Wales 29-18 at Twickenham on Sunday to win their first Triple Crown for 11 years and set up a thrilling finale to the Six Nations next Saturday. By beating Wales, England have given themselves a tilt at winning the tournament in five days when they travel to Rome to play Italy, but Ireland and France are also contenders in what is one of the most gripping championships in years.
In fact the scoreline flattered the Welsh, who arrived in a sun-drenched south-west London on the back of a convincing win against France and with memories still fresh in their minds of the 30-3 drubbing they dished out to the English in Cardiff 12 months ago.
But a year on Wales – who had 12 of last year's British and Irish Lions in their team – are past their peak while the young England side are still some way off theirs. Were it not for a sloppy opening sixteen minutes against France on the first weekend of the Six Nations, England would have been heading to Rome with a Grand Slam in their sights. But greater prizes than that could be within the grasp of England when they host the World Cup in 18 months' time.
Superior to Wales all over the pitch, England have arguably the best second row pairing in world rugby right now in Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, while the half-back pairing of Danny Care and Owen Farrell are the equal of any in Europe. With full-back Mike Brown continuing his rich vein of form, and the centre duo of Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees beginning to form an understanding, England dominated the set-piece while also threatening out wide.
Care scored the first of England's two first-half with a brilliant piece of opportunism and Burrell got the second after a clever grubber kick from Twelvetrees. Farrell converted both and also slotted five penalties in a faultless display of place-kicking, while Wales were restricted to six penalties from the reliable boot of Leigh Halfpenny
Man of the Match Lawes later thanked the crowd for creating "an amazing atmosphere" and added: "We grew a lot as a team over the last year, and a performance like that has been a long time coming."
Coach Stuart Lancaster admitted that last year's humiliation in Cardiff had never been far from their thoughts in the lead-up to Sunday's encounter: "Wales got one over us last year and that was in the back of our minds but this is our day and I'm delighted and proud for the boys," he said. "We've got a big game next week now, we're still in the fight and we want to be ready for Italy... [who] will be wanting to put on a display."
England's victory puts them level on six points with Ireland and France, all of them having won three of their four matches with the fifth to come on a triple-header of rugby next Saturday. So will are permutations on Super Saturday?
England's game in Rome is first up and Italy will have to go some if they are to record their first ever win over the men in white. Without a victory in the championship this season, Italy have shipped 120 points in their four matches and were thrashed 46-7 by Ireland on Saturday.
Following the Italy/England clash it will be Wales hosting Scotland in a match of no consequence as far as the outcome of the Six Nations goes.
After that dead rubber comes the denouement, with Ireland in Paris facing France. The French scraped past Scotland 17-16 on Saturday but this is one of the poorest, most conservative French sides in years, and the Irish should be too strong even in the Stade de France. A win for Ireland will almost certainly guarantee them the title regardless of what happens in Rome because of their plus points difference of 49 over England. If France were to win, however, along with England, then it will probably be the latter crowned champions as their points difference is superior to France's by 29.
But enough of the maths for the moment. Let's revel in the rugby played this weekend by Ireland and England and hope for more of the same on Super Saturday.