Six Nations 2015: Three talking points as England defeat Wales
Jonathan Joseph and James Haskell shine as England come from behind to topple Wales 21-16 in the Six Nations opener in Cardiff
At least one Joseph delivers
With England regulars Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt out injured, big things were expected from Bath Rugby centre Jonathan Joseph (pictured) on the big stage and in the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium. It may have been colder than usual with England insisting on the roof being open, but the 23-year-old was one of a number of England heroes who avoided stage fright under intense scrutiny. After the pre-match mind games, which extended into the team introductions, it was ironic that the Welsh Rugby Union had commissioned DJ Spoony, real name Johnathan Joseph, to put together the soundtrack to go with the over the top pre-match lights and pyro display that have come to signal Friday night rugby at the Millennium Stadium. While the music didn’t hit the right notes between the usual choral repertoire and the national anthems, there was at least one Joseph who delivered despite coming up against Wales’ powerful backline, who were collectively anonymous for much of this contest. Joseph’s second-half try was a brilliant solo effort that capped off 20 phases of patient play orchestrated by Leicester Tigers scrum-half Ben Youngs that saw Joseph use his supreme footwork and elusive running to stand up Dan Biggar before easing past concussion-hit George North, who probably should have been off the pitch. It wasn’t a perfect performance with a few passes going astray, but he offered enough in attack and put in plenty of hefty tackles for good measure too. Stuart Lancaster’s confidence and faith was well-placed and Jospeh’s midfield partner at Bath is due back next week too. What injury crisis?
Stick or twist time for Gatland
If there was an overwhelming confidence that his side could deliver, Warren Gatland now has a massive headache that simply won’t go away anytime soon. Naming his side four days before the match, there were no surprises. It picks itself, apparently. Or maybe not. Wales blew a 10-0 and 16-8 half-time lead as they were nilled in the second half. That doesn’t happen too often and there is still a feeling that Gatland is being typically stubborn with his selection, while his France, England and Scotland counterparts breed new talent. Dan Lydiate is renowned for his tackling, but was ineffective in the loose and Wales really struggled to get much go forward, particularly in the second half. Perhaps a recall for his Ospreys team-mate Justin Tipuric, who offers much more as a footballer, needs explored sooner rather than later. He may be an openside flanker, but can operate at blindside and starting both Tipuric and Sam Warburton definitely works – just look at the win over England back in 2013 – and if Wales don’t create chances, they won’t win matches. Tipuric is, far too often, underused on the international stage and debate will surely emerge in the coming days about the make up of the Wales back row, currently occupied by three British Lions. England’s back row trio were on fire, while the Welsh trio all had moments of brilliance, which were all too fleeting. Gethin Jenkins, another British Lion, kept his place at loosehead prop, but was too often second best and it was surprising it took 60 minutes before he was replaced by Bath’s Paul James who is more accustomed to coming up against big English packs in the Aviva Premiership. Letal wing duo Alex Cuthbert and George North were also bit-part players, in part because the ball barely went wide, although a couple of head knocks to North couldn’t have helped his cause either, and the issue of a recall for Scarlets full-back/wing Liam Williams won’t go away either, while some will prefer to see young Newport Gwent Dragons wing Hallam Amos given a chance to show if he can step up. The issue over North’s concussion could intensify that debate. With Wales’ next game taking place on Sunday, North has until Monday to be free of concussion symptoms to be available. If Gatland decides to ring the changes for the trip to Edinburgh next week though, it is likely that those coming in will be familiar faces to encounter a Scotland with growing confidence even if they lose in Paris on Saturday.
England forwards rise to occasion
The odds and stats were firmly stacked against Stuart Lancaster’s men given their more recent trips to the Millennium Stadium, but if there were still lingering concerns about a lengthy injury list they were quickly dispelled early in the second half as the Red Rose dominated proceedings and Wales struggled to get out of their own half. Lancaster described the win as the high point of his career, coming just two years after the low point when England were comprehensively defeated 30-3. As expected, any hopes of a repeat performance were short-lived despite Wales being 10-0 up inside 10 minutes. It could not, would not happen again. The Red Rose have their pack to thank for that. For all Wales’ pre-tournament camps focused on fitness, it was England’s forwards who looked fitter, stronger and tactically astute. Leicester tighthead prop Dan Cole may have been pinged several times for his work at the breakdown, but he regularly beasted his fellow British Lion Gethin Jenkins in his first international appearance for 11 months at the scrum. England dominated the set-scrum and seemed to have Wales going backwards every time. It isn’t too often that the Wales front eight find themselves going backwards and that will be a concern for the rest of the championship with other big packs to come, while the lineout also struggled, with four throws stolen by England. In the loose, Wasps captain James Haskell was typically sesnsational and was unlucky not to have a try for his efforts. George Ford may hvae been man of the match, but Haskell was equally worthy and, with the performance he put in, the six shirt should be his for the rest of the campaign. Billy Vunipola looked out of sorts early, but looked close to his best as the game went on, while Saracens lock George Kruis also looked comfortable on his first England start.