England is the 2016 European Six Nations champion, but must win again in Paris next Saturday to take the biggest prize: the Grand Slam.
England’s players won the title while watching their televisions on Sunday as they saw France, the last team with a chance to catch them, lose, 29-18, to Scotland in Edinburgh. It is its 27th championship, breaking its tie with Wales (26) at the top of the all-time standings.
It was also England’s second trophy in 24 hours, since a 25-21 against Wales here at Twickenham on Saturday had completed the Triple Crown — victories over the other three British and Irish nations.
Victory over France (2-2) would complete a perfect first season for England’s new coach, the Australian Eddie Jones. It would be both its first slam in 13 years, since its World Cup winning year of 2003, and its 13th of ever.
France will go into the match on the back of consecutive losses. The loss on Sunday was its first defeat by Scotland in 10 years. It scored fine team tries at the beginning and end of the first half and showed spirit to fight back within 3 points after trailing by 18-5.
But France was no match for the rapidly improving Scots (2-2) in the most entertaining match so far of a low-quality tournament. Fullback Stuart Hogg was Scotland’s star, scoring its first try, landing a 55-meter penalty goal and creating its decisive third try for wing Tim Visser with a deft deflection of a long pass from scrum-half Greig Laidlaw’. Scotland will go to Dublin to play Ireland next Saturday in third place, with hopes of only its fourth top-half finish since its last championship in 1999.
If England does complete the slam to finish 5-0, it will most very likely look back at the 25-21 victory on Saturday over Wales as the moment where it all could have slipped away but didn’t.
England spent the first hour looking like a worthy champion, then nearly blew it. The match echoed the last time England played Wales at Twickenham, a 28-25 loss in late September during the World Cup. England’s loss of a match it had dominated played a huge role in why Jones replaced Stuart Lancaster after the cup.
But in September, England was never ahead by more than 10 points. On Saturday, England led by 18 points with only six minutes to go, yet gave away 14 of them as the previously ineffective Welsh finally found their edge. Left winger George North and No. 8 Taulupe Faletau scored late tries for Wales, both converted by flyhalf Dan Biggar.
England barely hung on to win at the end. North was taken down just a few yards short of a winning score by England center Manu Tuilagi, who came on as a replacement.
Wales scored three tries to England’s one, but any result other than an England win would have been a travesty.
“Our first 60 minutes was superb,” Jones said. “We played very well, with a lot of precision, were tactically smart and were physical.”
During that hour, England dominated Wales in every aspect of play, with the rookie lock forward Maro Itoje playing brilliantly. Itoje, 21, certainly is smart — he is studying for a political science degree at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. On Saturday, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Itoje was a huge physical presence as well, dominating the lineout, making big tackles and setting up winger Anthony Watson to score England’s only try.
Wales produced its worst Six Nations showing in at least five years and was hopelessly outgunned in its usual areas of strength, losing the hand-to-hand battle for possession and missing 19 tackles in the first half alone.
“We just didn’t turn up in that first 40 minutes,” said Wales’ coach, Warren Gatland, who acknowledged that he thought about benching some starters after only 25 minutes. “At this level, that is just not acceptable.”
Wales trailed by 16-0 at halftime and, despite an opportunist try by Biggar, was still behind by 25-7 — with England center Owen Farrell kicking 20 points — when England was reduced to 14 men for the final eight minutes with prop Dan Cole getting a yellow card for collapsing a maul.
Jones blamed a change of attitude for England’s late collapse.
“In the last 20 minutes we tried to protect our lead rather than increase it,” he said. “If we had played with the same intent as in the first 60 minutes, we would have won by a lot more.”
Defeat eliminated Wales (2-1-1) from contention. It also lost its captain Sam Warburton with a head injury after 56 minutes, while England’s prop Joe Marler formally apologized on Sunday for calling Wales prop Sam Lee “a gypsy boy.”
Earlier on Saturday, Ireland (1-1-2) hammered Italy, 58-15, in Dublin, ending any fear that last year’s champion would fall from first to last. Eight players shared Ireland’s nine tries, its most in a championship match, with No. 8 Jamie Heaslip crossing twice.
The result doomed Italy (0-4) to its 10th last-place finish in 17 seasons — as many as Wales has recorded in 118 seasons.