Manu Tuilagi’s late red card for a dangerous tackle on George North was the one blemish for England on an afternoon when they systematically destroyed the defending champions who went down to a third successive defeat in a Six Nations campaign for the first time since 2007. The score line suggested a close contest, but two late tries by Wales when England were down to 13 players did not mask the deep divide between the sides.
Wales were willing but wanting, the adhesive that held them together in the final years of the Warren Gatland era softening. England were impressively effective, both in the way they milked their visits to Wales’s 22 and forced their opponents to play behind the gainline through their speed off the line and power in contact.
There was speculation in the build-up about whether Dan Biggar would play after injuring his right knee playing for Northampton the previous weekend. The fly-half duly started and within one minute was dusting himself down after being thumped hard in the tackle by Tuilagi and Mark Wilson, an incident that set the tone for what was to come.
England, as expected, were overtly physical, fast off the line and dominant despite having less possession than their opponents who, as against Ireland and France, had moments of reckless ambition that cost them. The first came after two minutes when, after Ross Moriarty had won a turnover following an England lineout on halfway, the champions indulged in some risky passing and North knocked on as he glanced at Tuilagi bearing down on him.
England moved upfield and from an attacking lineout scored the opening try of the game. It was ludicrously easy: Maro Itoje won the ball, Tom Curry set off on an outside break before passing to Ben Youngs.
The scrum-half fed Anthony Watson, making his first start of the campaign, and the wing had the space to get into a stride before wrong-footing Tomos Williams and reaching out for the line.
It was another rapid start from England but within four minutes they had lost their quickest player, Jonny May, after George North lost the ball near the England as he looked to ground it through a scrum of players. Owen Farrell started a squabble when he shoved the Wales wing and added some invective: May and Tomos Williams became involved, Alun Wyn Jones put the squeeze on Maro Itoje, who had earlier beaten him to a loose ball and then Marler indulged in some bag-snatching on Jones who reacted with open-mouthed surprise. May left for a head injury assessment and did not return.
The outcome was a penalty to Wales for Farrell’s aggression, which Leigh Halfpenny kicked, but England continued to force mistakes. Farrell’s challenge forced North to knock on and the England captain then shoved Biggar out of the way as he chased an attacking kick. The home side had a ruthless edge their opponents lacked and when Alun Wyn Jones conceded a penalty after not rolling away after a tackle, Farrell restored their seven-point advantage.
Halfpenny’s second penalty kept Wales in touch but a difference between the sides was composure in possession. Wales wasted an attacking line-out when Hadleigh Parkes dropped the ball as he looked to take a pass at pace. England showed how when, after Kyle Sinckler won a scrum penalty, Itoje won another line-out and, after two phases, the ball was moved left. George Ford provided the extra man, forcing Wales to defend narrowly, and Elliot Daly had a run-in.
Farrell’s second penalty made it 20-6 to England before Dan Biggar replied with the last kick of the opening period. The second-half was only 25 seconds old when England failed to chase a kick effectively and Wales counter-attacked down the right wing, Josh Navidi, Nick Tompkins and Tomos Williams combining to give Justin Tipuric a 30-metre run to the line.
It was a flash on inspiration rather than a turning point. Wales never found a riposte to England’s line-speed or the presence of Tom Curry and Courtney Lawes, their scrum disintegrated and England found the mastery that took them to the World Cup final. Penalties from Farrell and Ford gave them a cushion before they settled the outcome on the hour.
Ben Youngs, lively and alert throughout, made a break from a ruck and Watson ran into Wales’s 22. England quickly recycled the ball and a mixture of swift, accurate passing and support play gave them a two-man overlap which allowed Tuilagi to score his first international try since the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand.
Wales, with the match lost, then enjoyed their most sustained attacking period of the match but found little give in the England defence. Another Parkes knock-on ended a promising salvo but fed with a diet of penalties, most conceded for slowing down possession, the champions kept coming. Ellis Genge was sent to the sin-bin with eight minutes to go for his side’s persistent infringing.
Tuilagi was them sent off for a no-arms tackle on George North that saw him make contact with the dipping wing’s head with his shoulder. Wales had a two-man advantage but it did no more than even up the contest. England repelled a driving maul, but the numbers told for Wales who scored two tries in the final three minutes through Biggar and Tipuric. They left with a bonus point but no consolation.