Wales won by seven points at Twickenham on their way to the grand slam in 2008 and victory by the same margin there on Saturday leaves Italy and France between Warren Gatland’s men and another clean sweep.
It was a significant victory for Wales, even if a draw would have been a more fitting result. David Strettle thought he had scored with the last move of the game, which would have given Toby Flood the chance to level the scores with a conversion, but the video referee Iain Ramage could not find sufficient evidence to support the England wing’s contention that he had grounded the ball.
Wales went into the game as odds-on favourites and the last time they went to Twickenham so highly fancied was 1984. England hardly revelled in their role of underdogs, but they did work out a way of playing the game on their terms.
Scotland had looked to blunt Wales’s attack by targeting the breakdown and disrupting Mike Phillips at scrum-half. England concentrated one further out and put pressure on the outside-half Rhys Priestland, who had made his first international appearance in the position in the World Cup warm-up match at Twickenham last August.
No player has been more responsible for Wales’s transformation in that time from a team that played laterally into one which plays with width. Priestland has shown composure on the ball and an ability to weigh up his options before he receives the ball, giving his outside backs added time.
England, led by Brad Barritt, pressed so hard in midfield that they not only neutralised Jamie Roberts, who sat out the second-half with damaged knee ligaments, but they forced Priestland to often decide what to do after he received the ball.
The outside-half was three times caught in possession and twice turned over; he had a kick charged down near his own line four minutes into the second period, and while Mouritz Botha was unable to score, Priestland was sent to the sin-bin for standing in an off-side position at the subsequent ruck; and he was rushed into kicking downfield, too often finding Ben Foden.
Gatland considered hauling off Priestland with 20 minutes to go. Had James Hook been on the bench, he may have made the move but chickenpox had ruled out the Perpignan outside-half and the 104-cap Stephen Jones never got beyond the warming-up stage as Priestland rallied in the final 10 minutes.
Little was seen of Wales’s outside backs as an attacking threat after the opening 10 minutes, testimony to England’s defensive strategy, and it was England who created the better chances. Manu Tuilagi looked to have found space on the outside only to be hauled down by Sam Warburton; Owen Farrell had an opportunity five metres out when the defence drifted too far with Foden and Ashton lurking but he shovelled the ball along; and Ashton was held up short.
England had more balance behind than they had in their opening two matches, but Farrell needed to offer more of a threat with the ball in hand to create uncertainty in the defence. Tuilagi never wasted a chance to torment Priestland and the back three were brought into the game.
Wales were stretched and when Priestland was sent to the sin-bin, allowing Farrell to put his side six points ahead, England were in control. It was the sixth time in seven away Six Nations matches that Wales were reduced to 14 men and they tended to concede at least one try when a player short.
They lost the game at Twickenham in 2010 when Alun Wyn Jones was given 10 minutes off, conceding 17 points, but Phillips got hold of his forwards and they kept the ball for five minutes and by the time Priestland returned, the score was 12-9 to the home side.
Wales drew level with Leigh Halfpenny’s fourth penalty and with five minutes to go both sides were playing for territory. When Foden missed touch after claiming a mark, England won a turnover on halfway. Courtney Lawes had the ball, but he was robbed by a centre, the replacement Scott Williams, who kicked, chased, caught and scored.
It was the third try England had conceded in the tournament, all coming from their own mistakes. They have only scored two, Charlie Hodgson chargedowns, and their next match is in Paris.
Yet they were able to take almost as much from the match as Wales. An average of less than 15 points a match needs to be improved and they lack a flanker in the predatory mould of Warburton, but they are organised and united.
It was a match Wales would have lost a year ago, but after coming back from six points down in Dublin, they did so again at Twickenham. They lacked their usual fluency but they confronted their demons and answered those who said they were unable to beat a team above them in the world rankings.
Italy should be no more of a speed bump in Cardiff in the next round and when France visit the Millennium Stadium on the final weekend, they will be playing their fourth match in as many weeks and facing the fittest team in the tournament.