England savour eight-year vintage

Martin Johnson's team kick off Six Nations campaign with a first victory in Wales since World Cup-winning year of 2003.

    England's defence shut out a late Wales fightback as the Red Rose ended their long drought in Cardiff [GALLO/GETTY]

    Winger Chris Ashton scored two tries as England beat Wales 26-19 for their first victory in Cardiff since 2003 in their Six Nations opener at the Millennium Stadium.

    The former Rugby League flier crossed after 14 and 55 minutes as England kept their noses in front throughout a fierce encounter and their defence proved sound enough to hold off a late charge.

    Last time England won a Six Nations game in Cardiff they went on to a grand slam and months later lifted the World Cup in Australia.

    Martin Johnson captained them that day eight years ago and though the young team he now manages look a long way short of the 2003 vintage they showed real maturity to deal with the deafening noise generated by the home fans under the closed roof of one of the most atmospheric venues in world sport.

    England showed only glimpses of the attacking verve that cut through Australia in November though when they did see space they took advantage in deadly style, with man of the match fly half Toby Flood setting Ashton free for the all-important first score with a razor-sharp break.

    'Real test'

    "It was a really good win, it was a real test for us and we came through it," Johnson told BBC Radio 5 Live.

    "There were anxious moments, we tried a few passes in the first half when we needed to hold on to the ball and they will say they had chances, but we kept them out and that's the game."

    The Friday night atmosphere was electric and England's first task was to quieten the crowd, which they did with the opening try after 14 minutes.

    The initial exchanges had been scruffy, with Wales missing two penalties, but their defence suddenly lost its shape enabling Flood to blast through a gap and off-load to ever-present wing man Ashton for the opening score.

    Flood converted and added a penalty soon after to give England a 10-0 cushion, but they were far from in control.

    Wales fought back quickly and forced two penalties, both landed by Stephen Jones to close the gap to 13-6 at half time.

    A penalty apiece soon after the restart kept things tight and though Wales dominated possession they struggled to create gaps as England's defence stood firm.

    Wales, without a win in their previous seven matches, tried to open the game up but it did not work as England turned them over three times in dangerous positions, with flanker Tom Wood enjoying an assured debut.


    Once they got their hands on the ball England suddenly upped the intensity.

    Scrum half Ben Youngs sent Mark Cueto into a gap and he fed the overlapping Ashton for his second try.

    Flood's conversion made it 23-9 but Wales, as they had to, hit back quickly as Jonathan Davies broke the line and sent winger Morgan Stoddart over in the corner for their first try.

    Jones's excellent touchline conversion brought them back to within seven points and a rash of replacements gave the 74,276 crowd the chance to draw breath.

    Wales continued to make the running and another penalty made it 23-19 with 10 minutes to go but another England penalty, this time landed by replacement Jonny Wilkinson, stretched the lead back to seven points and the visitors held out.

    England can now look forward to three successive home games against Italy, France and Scotland before finishing the championship in Dublin while Wales next face away games in Scotland and Italy.

    "England played well. At times we played some exciting rugby but we kicked away possession in the first half and there are things on the field that are hurting us that we need to address," said Wales coach Warren Gatland.

    The competition continues on Saturday when Italy host Ireland and defending champions France take on Scotland.

    SOURCE: Reuters


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