England's defence shows sign of all-round strength

February 12, 2018

The second weekend of the NatWest Six Nations brought plenty more talking points, with the three sides most strongly expected to challenge for the title all showing in different ways why they have been so highly rated. 

England's match against Wales is always an eagerly-awaited event for reasons of historic rivalry, but before the start of the season Wales had been widely written off, not least because of a long list of injuries to key players. 

All that had been confounded by a 34-7 thrashing of Scotland in Cardiff that included a career-best 24 points by Leigh Halfpenny. It came as a huge blow, therefore, to find the full-back ruled out of the game at Twickenham with a foot infection. 

If some had expected England to simply follow up their seven-try Roman romp with another exhibition, the early minutes provided that through Jonny May's two early tries that put the team 12-0 up.

However, rather than ending up admiring England's attacking, the crowd and pundits were ultimately left marvelling at some extraordinary defensive work as Wales dominated the rest of the game, but could only score two penalties for all their efforts.

Key moments came in both halves. In the first, Anthony Watson raced back behind his own try-line to get a crucial touch down on the ball as Gareth Anscombe tried to do likewise. The Television Match Official was left with a hairline decision and decided he could not be sure Anscombe had got the decisive touch, but had Watson not been so fast to react to the situation it would have been a certain try. 

The second incident came midway through the second half, when Wales looked certain to score and Scott Williams slid for the corner, only for Sam Underhill, making a dramatic diagonal dash, to hurtle across and bundle him into touch inches short of the line. If that does not turn out to be the tackle of the championship, anything better will be well-worth seeing.

Eddie Jones cannot be too happy about England's failure to add to their early scores - he is not a man to do 'satisfied' - but the Australian coach will be able to reflect that his team showed the kind of brilliant defensive resilience that can carry a top team to victory when its attack misfires. It could make all the difference in this year's competition. 

For fans booking corporate hospitality for the clash with Ireland at Twickenham on March 17th, the importance of that match is growing ever greater. 

The Irish demonstrated some outstanding quality in rolling Italy over 56-19 for a bonus point win, with the quicksilver wing play of Jacob Stockdale again a highlight as he scored two tries. Italy managed three of their own to suggest Ireland's defence is far from invulnerable, but the fact that the Azzurri scored twice against England may be more of an indication that they have at least found some punch in attack. 

Before England face Ireland, however, the Calcutta Cup clash at Murrayfield on February 24th looms large. High expectations for Scotland were punctured by their Cardiff mauling, highlighting an ongoing poor record on the road. In Edinburgh, however, this Scotland side is a different beast, coming from 10-0 behind early on and 20-14 down at half-time to beat France 32-26. This was mainly thanks to Greig Laidlaw's boot as his immaculate kicking produced 22 points. 

If the result cheered Scotland, it may also show just why France will be an also ran this year. Once again they showed some great qualities, not least two fine tries by Teddy Thomas. But, just as they missed out on beating Ireland in Paris with this last kick of the game, so they were unable to hold a lead at Murrayfield. 

Does this make France a team of 'chokers'? That may seem harsh, but the jury is certainly out. To lose two leads certainly does not look good. Conversely, they were against two of the championship favourites and in the second case against a team that demolished the Wallabies in their last home game. 

If France do prove wobbly when leading, however, England will be particularly keen to exploit such a shortcoming through their strength off the bench when they visit the Stade de France on March 10th.