England win scrappy Six Nations match to heap misery on hosts
England heaped more misery on troubled Wales with a scrappy Six Nations victory in Cardiff.
A frantic first half saw the teams separated by a try from England wing Anthony Watson.
Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit managed an intercept try before England responded with scores from Kyle Sinckler and Ollie Lawrence.
Wales’ players had threatened to go on strike in the build-up and could not overcome their troubled preparation.
They have now lost 12 of their last 15 games and suffered a third successive Six Nations defeat since Warren Gatland’s return as head coach.
Wales have endured their worst start in the tournament since 2007 and have to travel to face Italy and France as they bid to avoid a first Six Nations whitewash in 20 years. This defeat means Wales will drop to 10th in the world rankings.
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Following an opening weekend defeat by Scotland, England have picked up successive wins over Italy and Wales and could even afford to miss out on 10 points as a result of four missed kicks from captain Owen Farrell.
England full-back Freddie Steward was named player of the match as he dominated the aerial battle, with Wales continually kicking to him.
It was England’s biggest victory in Cardiff since 2003 and first win at the Principality Stadium since 2017.
Steve Borthwick’s side now face France and Ireland in their final two matches.
Wales’ troubled build-up
Even by rugby’s self-destructive standards, the chaotic last 10 days in the Welsh game take some beating.
An 11th-hour agreement struck between the national squad and Welsh rugby bosses on Wednesday evening averted a potential strike over player contracts that would have seen this game called off.
It was uncertain whether Wales would be galvanised or drained by a traumatic period in their history, with a build-up which saw a training session cancelled so negotiations could continue.
As well as turmoil wherever you look off the field, Wales had troubles on it, with two heavy defeats by Ireland and Scotland before this and Gatland still searching for his best side in his second stint in charge.
He made nine more changes for this game, with 20-year-old centre Mason Grady thrown in to make his debut.
Grady formed a midfield partnership with Joe Hawkins, who was the same age and winning just his fourth cap, while Owen Williams made his first Test start in the fabled Wales number 10 jersey.
The loss of more than 300 caps in the back division – with Liam Williams, George North and Dan Biggar not involved in the starting side – was balanced out by the return of veteran forwards Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric back.
In contrast England were more settled, with wing Watson replacing the injured Ollie Hassell-Collins in the only change to the side that beat Italy.
Silencing the Cardiff crowd
England were intent on silencing the crowd after a emotive week for the Welsh players. They managed to do just that.
It was the visitors that made the early inroads, with Farrell slotting over the opening penalty.
England’s back-row trio all made an early impression with Alex Dombrandt taking a towering high ball, Jack Willis achieving a turnover and Lewis Ludlam impressing in attack and defence.
England demonstrated attacking intent with Max Malins and Lawrence creating the space for Watson to dive over to score in his first international for almost two years.
Farrell’s conversion hit the post before full-back Leigh Halfpenny opened Wales’ account with a penalty in his first start since July 2021.
Halfpenny was given a fearsome welcome back to international rugby after he was repeatedly smashed by England tacklers as the visitors enjoyed the ascendancy in the aerial battle in the first half.
Farrell failed to add three points with a missed penalty after Wales prop Tomas Francis was penalised at a scrum.
Wales produced their most encouraging attacking endeavours towards the end of the first half.
Breaks from Rees-Zammit and prop Gareth Thomas were thwarted by expert breakdown steals from Dombrandt and Ludlam as England led 8-3 at half-time.
Wales again demonstrated a lack of clinical edge after forays into the opposition’s 22.
Rees-Zammit lit up the Cardiff stadium early in the second half after intercepting a loose pass from Malins to sprint away to score. Halfpenny converted to give Wales the lead for the first time.
That proved short-lived as England prop Sinckler burrowed over from short range.
It was Cardiff redemption for Sinckler after Wales had wound him up four years ago and forced him to be replaced early in the second half of that match.
Wales brought on backline reinforcements with Biggar replacing Williams, who appeared to be carrying a hip injury.
Centre Nick Tompkins was also introduced for Josh Adams with Grady switching to the left wing.
Farrell missed a third kick at goal before Wales brought on Dafydd Jenkins and Tommy Reffell, who they hoped would give them more success at the breakdown.
Courtney Lawes came on to win his 97th England cap – his first appearance since leading the July 2022 tour to Australia with concussion, neck, glute and calf injuries disrupting his season.
Lawes was involved as England attempted to close out the game with a defining try but Tipuric initially frustrated them with a turnover.
England were not to be denied, though, and centre Lawrence provided the final score.
Man of the match
Freddie Steward: The Leicester full-back is one of the best in the world under the high ball and Wales fed his strength
Wales: Halfpenny; Adams, Grady, Hawkins, Rees-Zammit; O Williams, T Williams; G Thomas, Owens (capt), Francis, Beard, AW Jones, Tshiunza, Tipuric, Faletau.
Replacements: Roberts, Carre, Lewis, Jenkins, Reffell, Hardy, Biggar, Tompkins.
England: Steward; Malins, Slade, Lawrence, Watson; Farrell (capt), Van Poortvliet; Genge, George, Sinckler; Itoje, Chessum; Ludlam, Willis, Dombrandt.
Replacements: Walker, M Vunipola, Cole, Lawes, B Curry, Mitchell, M Smith, Arundell.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Touch judges: Andrew Brace (Ireland) & Pierre Brousset (France)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
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