Marcus Smith’s boot and a try from Alex Dombrandt ensured England remain in the Guinness Six Nations title hunt after they defeated reigning champions Wales 23-19 at Twickenham.
Both teams went into the contest knowing that defeat would likely end their hopes of lifting the title, having won one and lost one in the opening two rounds of the Championship.
And it was England who dominated much of the first half, establishing a 12-0 lead through the boot of Smith to leave Wayne Pivac’s side on the ropes at the interval.
Dombrandt’s try after the restart appeared to put the result beyond doubt but two quickfire scores from Josh Adams and Nick Tompkins provided the visitors with a glimmer of hope.
But two more penalties from Smith – the Championship’s top scorer – got England over the line despite Wales replacement scrum-half Kieran Hardy darting over at the death.
It was also a momentous day for Ben Youngs as the scrum-half came off the bench to win his 115th cap, breaking Jason Leonard’s caps record for England’s men.
SMITH BOOT GIVES ENGLAND ADVANTAGE
The atmosphere inside Twickenham was electric for the first meeting between these two sides in front of a packed stadium since this same fixture in the 2020 Championship.
England started that game on the front foot before winning 33-30 and it was a similar story this time around as Eddie Jones’ men hit the ground running against the defending champions.
The hosts piled the pressure on from the kick-off after Owen Watkins spilled the ball and after Wales were penalised for holding on, Smith slotted the first points inside three minutes.
Another breakdown penalty from the men in red followed two minutes later, with Smith once again making no mistake from the tee to give England an early 6-0 advantage.
Wales responded with a clever kick from skipper Dan Biggar, who pinned Elliot Daly – a late replacement for the injured Manu Tuilagi – back behind his own tryline.
The visitors were unable to make the most of their first spell in England’s 22, though, as returning Red Rose skipper Courtney Lawes showed his importance by stealing the Welsh lineout.
England were soon back on the attack and after more indiscipline from Wales at the breakdown, Smith was presented with another opportunity only to fade his effort wide of the right post.
It was still largely one way traffic, however, with England enjoying more territory after a superb kick from Harry Randall and pressure from Max Malins forced a lineout 10m out.
Another promising position ultimately did not end in points as Charlie Ewels was stopped short of the line but the hosts did at least come away with a man advantage after Liam Williams was sin-binned for stopping the ball being played on the floor.
Several scrum resets allowed 14-man Wales to eat into some of those ten minutes before England were forced into an early change as Jamie George came on for Luke Cowan-Dickie.
But the home side did eventually manage to come away with some points on the half-hour mark, with Smith slotting another three just before Williams returned to the field.
And the first half finished in the similar way as it started, with Smith converting his fourth penalty after England found themselves frustrated by Wales’ defence once again.
ENGLAND HOLD OFF WALES FIGHTBACK
With a 12-point lead at the break, England marginally surpassed the 11-point advantage they took into the interval two years ago despite failing to cross the whitewash this time.
But after an opening 40 minutes that was short on excitement, the home side started the second period with much more intent and were rewarded for a slick move on 43 minutes.
Multiple phases in the Wales half allowed England to creep towards the whitewash before Randall found touch 5m out. From there, Ryan Elias’ lineout sailed over the top of everyone and into the grateful hands of Dombrandt, who dived over for his first Test try.
Smith was unable to add the extras but Wales were still faced with a mountain to climb to get back into the contest, having lost their last four Championship games at Twickenham.
Yet as they showed against Scotland in Round 2, this Wales team possesses plenty of fight and they hit back with their opening try of the contest on 53 minutes.
A grubber kick from Liam Williams gave the visitors territory and after working the ball left, Tomos Williams put in Adams with a pass that missed out two England bodies to get Wales on the board.
Biggar missed the conversion but there was a sense that the momentum had swung – a feeling that became even more prominent when Wales scored a second try on the hour.
Another series of phases and pick-and-go’s were followed by a sweeping move down the left, with Tomos Williams once again orchestrating space for Tompkins to crash over.
The successful conversion from Biggar cut the deficit to five and Jones responded by turning to his most experienced lieutenant, with Youngs coming on for his record-breaking cap.
His influence soon paid off as England took the sting out of the game with two penalties from the boot of Smith, giving the home side a comfortable 11-point advantage.
And while a quick tap-and-go try from Hardy ensured the final few minutes were more tense than they should have been, England held on to fight another day in the Championship title race.
PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Marcus Smith proved England’s hero once again with an 18-point haul.
His kicking was not flawless but the Harlequins No.10 delivered when it mattered for the hosts, with his six penalties enough to seal back-to-back Guinness Six Nations Player of the Match awards.
He was also a constant running threat with the ball in hand, finishing with 53 metres from his seven carries, in a game in which neither side quite found their flow in attack.