LONDON – Eddie Jones was right when he predicted the support of an “extra man” would be crucial when England played Wales. Rather than the Twickenham crowd, it turned out be the television match official.
Wales was aggrieved at having a try ruled out during England’s 12-6 victory which kept Jones’ team on track for a third successive outright Six Nations title on Saturday.
Jonny May’s early pair of tries set England on its way to a record 15th consecutive home win in the championship.
But Wales could have had two tries, too. Scott Williams’ legs were bundled into touch by England flanker Sam Underhill as he was sliding toward the left corner in the second half. But in the first half, the TMO ruled out a try for fullback Gareth Anscombe.
“He has one big call to make and unfortunately he’s made a terrible mistake and at this level that’s pretty disappointing,” Wales coach Warren Gatland said.
England showed little sympathy after moving level on points with Ireland, after its main rival thrashed Italy 56-19 in Dublin earlier. A Grand Slam decider between the two in just over a month remains a possibility.
“I don’t know why people say we’re lucky with the refereeing decision,” Jones said, “The TMO has all the time in the world to make his decision.”
Both teams relied on kicking games in a constant drizzle to pressure, and England was better at it against a Wales side rocked before the match by the withdrawal of fullback Leigh Halfpenny, forcing a first championship start on Anscombe, who acquitted himself well.
Halfpenny starred in the opening rout of Scotland, but a foot infection sidelined him, and without his nous Wales was immediately exposed under the high ball. Anthony Watson outjumped Rhys Patchell, allowing Owen Farrell to arrow a low kick behind the Welsh defense for May to touch down in the third minute.
Halfpenny’s goalkicking was also missed, as flyhalf Patchell missed an early penalty opportunity before turning down a couple of others that Halfpenny would have considered regulation.
Where Wales struggled, England’s Mike Brown excelled. He effortlessly plucked kick after kick out of the air to stymie Wales and launch counterattacks.
“I thought they (England) were very, very good in the air and dominated that aerial battle and as a result probably dominated a bit more territory and possession,” Gatland said. “That was kind of what hurt us a little bit.”
The influential Farrell was involved once more as England breached the Welsh in the 20th, finding out wide lock Joe Launchbury, who flicked a deft pass inside for May to grab his second try.
Anscombe then appeared to beat England wing Anthony Watson to the ball in-goal but TMO Glenn Newman advised referee Jerome Garces not to award the try. The disbelieving visitors were forced to settle for a Patchell penalty.
“I thought Gareth got there,” Gatland said. “His hand was there and clearly there’s downward pressure. It’s human error, he makes a mistake, but at this level in front of 82,000 people when there’s a lot at stake guys have got to get those decisions right.”
England remained in the ascendancy for long periods but was unable to make its territorial advantage pay in the face of a disciplined Welsh defense.
Wales was finding it similarly difficult to create openings, until Gatland reshuffled his backline by introducing George North in place of Patchell before the hour mark.
Anscombe moved to his preferred No. 10 position, and Josh Adams shifted from wing to fullback.
The adjustment almost paid immediate dividends, only for Underhill, on in place of injured No. 8 Sam Simmonds at halftime, to prevent a certain try by taking out Scott Williams’ legs.
But Wales came again, North carrying his side up the field with a storming run, leading to a penalty in front of the posts. Trailing by nine with just three minutes remaining, Anscombe ended the game’s 53-minute scoring drought by converting the penalty to bring Wales within a converted try of victory and securing a losing bonus point.
The tension heightened around Twickenham, but England produced a clinical defensive set from the kickoff to keep Wales inside its own half and close out a crucial victory.
“It showed that we can hang in there, we can find a way to win and that’s an important habit to have,” Jones said. “You get that habit by working harder than other teams, and we’ve got to continue to remember that.”