England withstood a furious fightback from Wales to open their 2011 Six Nations campaign with a 26-19 victory and end their eight-year losing streak in Cardiff on Friday.
Two converted tries from wing Chris Ashton and four penalties from flyhalf Toby Flood and Jonny Wilkinson secured a nervy victory for Martin Johnson’s men at the Millennium Stadium in a see-saw battle between the archrivals.
Wales fought back from 23-9 down heading into the final quarter to go within four points of England at 23-19 with 10 minutes left before a late Wilkinson penalty saw the visitors home.
It was England’s first win in Cardiff since 2003.
Early Welsh pressure saw a nervy-looking England concede two penalties but neither Stephen Jones nor James Hook were able to take advantage.
Instead, England gradually settled into their routine and quickly began exerting pressure on the Welsh scrum. And with their first visit to the Welsh 22, England were able to put points on the board.
Poor Welsh defence at the side of a ruck allowed Flood to burst into a gaping chasm and pop the simplest of passes to Ashton, who dived over under the posts with flourish for the opening score on 15 minutes.
Flood added a routine conversion to give England a 7-0 lead which soon became 10-0 when the Leicester flyhalf punished Wales again after another infringement at the scrum.
Wales got their first points on the board shortly afterwards when James Haskell committed a needless infringement at a ruck in front of the posts to give Jones a simple shot at goal.
England were looking dangerous again though shortly afterwards and advanced into a menacing position in the Welsh 22.
However they failed to secure possession at the breakdown and Wales swept back up field to the evident disgust of Johnson watching from the stands.
Buoyed by the deafening crowd, Wales pressed under the posts and with England scrambling to get back in position Louis Deacon committed a blatant off-side which saw referee Alain Rolland produce a deserved yellow card.
Jones added a simple penalty to make it 10-6, but thereafter Wales were unable to take advantage of their extra man.
In fact, it was England who scored next on 32 minutes, Flood slotting his second penalty when Andy Powell was needlessly off-side at the breakdown and England held on to turn around 13-6 at the break.
Jones reduced the deficit with another penalty but disaster struck Wales soon afterwards when tighthead Craig Mitchell was sin-binned for killing the ball at a ruck.
Flood added the three points to make it 16-9 and soon afterwards England turned the screw.
England’s line-out, which had functioned smoothly all night, won clean ball on the left and from the ensuing drive the ball was spun right and Mark Cueto’s miss pass sent Ashton haring in for his second try.
Flood’s touchline conversion made it 23-9 and Wales looked to be beaten. But they were gifted a route back into the match when poor marking by Shontayne Hape in midfield allowed Jonathan Davies to put Scarlets star Morgan Stoddart over in the corner.
Jones’s conversion made it 23-16 and another penalty from Hook put them to within four points heading into the last 10.
England, who by now had emptied their replacement bench, mounted a furious series of attacks on the Welsh line. But despite their pack battering Wales repeatedly, the home side somehow held firm and won a penalty when replacement hooker Steve Thompson held on too long.
Yet the respite was fleeting and when Wales were penalised with five minutes to go, Wilkinson, on as a replacement at flyhalf for Flood, stepped up to restore England’s seven-point advantage at 26-19.
Man of the Match: England winger Chris Ashton deserves a mention for his try-double, but the man who pulled the strings for the visitors was flyhalf Toby Flood, who also managed a points-haul of 13 for his country.
Moment of the Match: Definitely Ashton’s second try – after good line-out ball and Mark Cueto popping up on the right-hand side, off his left-wing – as it gave England a crucial 23-9 lead shortly before the start of the final quarter. Even though they came close, it was a deficit that proved too much for the home side in the end.
Villain of the Match: You could argue that the two yellow card recipients, Louis Deacon (England) and Craig Mitchell (Wales), should get this award. However, their sin-binnings were merely professional fouls and there wasn’t really much in it. There were some pushes and shoves… but nothing too serious in a tense match.
Con: S Jones
Pens: S Jones 3, Hook
Tries: Ashton 2
Cons: Flood 2
Pens: Flood 3, Wilkinson
Yellow card(s): Louis Deacon (England, 29th minute – slapping ball out of scrumhalf’s hand); Craig Mitchell (Wales, 47th minute – hands in the ruck).