Analysis: Wales show character as England test strength in depth

Wales showed their true colours as they responded to Warren Gatland’s call to arms and avenged their defeat to England last week in the rematch in Cardiff.

Wales showed their true colours as they responded to Warren Gatland’s call to arms and avenged their defeat to England last week in the rematch in Cardiff.

A George North try in the first half proved the difference between the two teams at the Principality Stadium as Wales prevailed 13-6 to rise to the summit of the world rankings.

Dan Biggar added a penalty and conversion to give the hosts a 10-0 lead at the break, only for England to close the gap with two George Ford penalties upon the restart.

But a Leigh Halfpenny three-pointer extended Wales’ advantage with less than five minutes left and the men in red showed their defensive resilience in the closing minutes to see out the game.

The result means Wales will sit atop the world rankings for the first time since World Rugby introduced the ranking system in 2003 as they continue their World Cup preparations.

Character was the operative word from both the Wales players and management after they dug deep to emerge triumphant from a tense and physical affair in Cardiff.

Gatland had made his feelings clear about his side’s performance six days earlier at Twickenham and having only made three changes, he urged Wales to redeem themselves on Saturday.

And his challenge was gleefully accepted by the hosts who barely gave England a sniff of their tryline thanks to a defensive display that brought back memories of their Grand Slam triumph.

Their attitude was best exemplified by the pack, which managed to nullify the threat posed by England’s driving maul and held out under intense pressure in the closing stages.

Even England’s improvement after the break was not enough to wear the Welsh down, with the home side producing a titanic counter drive in the final minute to repel one last attack.

“It was a proper Test match, it was tough, it was physical,” said Gatland afterwards. “I said to the boys in the changing room, we showed massive character and big cojones.”

All eyes were on Biggar as he took over the No.10 jersey from Gareth Anscombe, who suffered a knee injury against the same opponents at Twickenham a week earlier.

With Anscombe ruled out of the World Cup as a result, the pressure was on the Northampton Saints man to prove himself as the man to fill the fly-half role in Japan.

Never one to shirk a challenge, Biggar was influential throughout his time on the pitch as his creative flair often caused England problems in a tight game with few chances for either side.

He peppered England’s back three with an early aerial assault of high balls and when Anthony Watson was sin-binned, it was Biggar who stepped up and took control for Wales.

Sensing an opportunity from the resulting penalty, Biggar took it quickly and found Josh Adams in space on the right wing before repeating the trick to set up North in the opposite corner.

He then converted the extras, having opened the scoring with a penalty, to give the hosts a 10-0 lead at the break and leave England with a mountain to climb after the restart.

While the visitors began to find a way back into the game and stifled Biggar’s attacking game, he was still able to show his defensive ability as he stopped Maro Itoje with a shuddering tackle.

It was always going to be tough for England to repeat their performance at Twickenham in Cardiff as they attempted to halt Wales’ ten-match winning run at home, stretching back to 2017.

And so it proved as a determined Welsh defence prevented the Red Rose from crossing the whitewash as the visitors struggled to find their fluency in attack over the 80 minutes.

Losing Ruaridh McConnochie before the game to a muscle strain certainly didn’t help matters, but it wasn’t until Jones rung the changes in the second half that England began to look dangerous.

Piers Francis appeared to struggle to deal with Jonathan Davies and Hadleigh Parkes in midfield, while Jonathan Joseph was also unable to assert himself despite impressing defensively.

Ford tried his best to get England’s attack firing, showing glimpses of his ingenuity, but his kicking game left a lot to be desired and Owen Farrell’s introduction made an instant impact.

Nevertheless, Jones welcomed the warm-up game as a valuable learning experience for his younger players and singled out Lewis Ludlam and Ellis Genge for praise after a physical Test.

With a number of players still unavailable, Jones was also quick to stress his England side still have plenty in reserve before their opening World Cup match against Tonga next month.