TWICKENHAM, London -- England talked all week about wanting to rebuild trust at Twickenham and they have gone some way to relaying the foundations with this narrow 16-14 win over Wales. But this was a match about transition, and it played to a standard befitting where both teams are -- these are two sets of players becoming accustomed to tactical shifts and new teammates.
That's what the whole occasion felt like on a chilly Saturday afternoon. There were new touches inside the stadium, while the match had glimpses of brilliance but was one where it was as much about managing discipline as it was being clinical on the pitch.
The outstanding player Tommy Reffell was in Welsh red; the match-winning, momentum-shifting moments came from those in white, bolstered by the introduction of props Ellis Genge and Dan Cole after 52 minutes and the clear thinking of George Ford late on.
It was about pressure and counter-pressure, stretching the width of play, about breaching blitz defences but above all, this was about controlling the waves of a match and striking when opportunity allowed. In the end, it was England who arm-wrestled this match over the line, leaving them as one of two teams still in with a shout of winning the championship Grand Slam.
But just like last week, there is plenty to take away from this performance from Wales. They fell by a single point to Scotland last week in Cardiff, coming back from 0-27 down to lose 26-27. Warren Gatland came into this Twickenham Test in bullish mood -- he's won seven of his 20 matches here between Wasps and Wales, and has stunned this old stadium into silence before.
The message to his young side was to park any sense of intimidation and instead embrace the challenge of being the ones to burst the slowly-building sense of optimism around the work Steve Borthwick's doing with England.
England came out of the blocks flying here, but it Wales who went into the break 14-5 up. English first-half discipline cost them two players to the sin-bin with Ollie Chessum yellow-carded for a shoulder to head on Welsh tight-head Keiron Assiratti after 11 minutes. The second yellow came six minutes later and resulted in a Welsh penalty try, with Ethan Roots temporarily dismissed for his role in pulling down the maul.
England managed to weather the numerical disadvantage well, scoring with 13 men as they managed to force a scrum 10 metres out and Ben Earl bundled through three Welsh defenders to score. Ford had his conversion charged down, the referee calling that he started his run up when he took a step to the left.
Wales regained momentum and then came the second Welsh punch as Alex Mann scored just before the break. England at this stage looked disorganised and a little bewildered. Wales hadn't conceded a penalty, England looked vulnerable in defence -- just like last week -- and those in red were hoping of recording their first Six Nations win at Twickenham since 2012.
But then came the English revival. They grabbed a penalty back after 48 minutes, and then Fraser Dingwall burrowed over in the corner in the 63rd minute. The key passage of play came in the 69th minute, a series of moves which teed up a series of match-winning moments. First Freddie Steward took a brilliant high ball, Ford then kicked a 50:22 and from that lineout, Mason Grady was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on and Ford gave England a two-point lead from the tee. Job done.
That it was the 79th minute when "Swing Low" finally broke through in the stands said it all. Until that moment there was this niggling feeling that somehow Wales were going to gatecrash this English homecoming. But it was not to be, with England holding out for a narrow victory.
England came into this match talking about wanting to regain the trust of their supporters. Jamie George, England's captain, has been passionate about this and there were changes: the team bus was parked further back in the confines of the ground, allowing the players to walk through more fans enroute to the stadium. There was more in-game music, and subtle changes to their changing room. There was lingering hurt from their last few matches here, having won just three of their previous 10 Tests at the ground. Borthwick kept the faith with the same XV which edged past Italy last week, the first time an England coach had named an unchanged side since the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.
There were questions over the vulnerability of England's blitz defence under new coach Felix Jones, something Italy exploited well last week. There is previous here, given South Africa won just seven of their first 14 Tests under the Jones regime when he worked there. But then again, Jones has won back-to-back World Cup titles and is regarded as one of the best in his field in the world. The players talked in the week about being allowed to make mistakes, learning all the way.
And there were errors. Wales looked to exploit some English vulnerability on the wings given their narrow defence. Ioan Lloyd shifted the point of attack from right to left and in the first-half it worked. Some of the highlights will make ugly watching for the England team. They had few answers to Reffell's offloads and ability to slow the breakdown. He put in a key offload to help Wales away to their second try through Mann.
"We've wanted to get him comfortable with ball in hand and become a running threat," Gatland said. "He's getting a nice balance in his game and that can take him to the next level. He was absolutely outstanding today."
But despite the nine-point deficit, England's heads didn't bow. They played better in the second half, with more purpose and physicality and Genge and Cole trundling off the bench with 28 minutes left switched the balance of play firmly in England's way. They started dominating the scrum, the decisions went their way and from there they could build and eventually hold on. Earl was England's outstanding player, their key gainline breaker, while Steward did well under the high ball.
"What I see here are a team that stays in the fight," England coach Borthwick said after the game.
Wales will lament this as an opportunity missed. They had chances to stretch their lead, enough for their young captain Dafydd Jenkins to say "we should have won" post-match.
That's the belief Gatland has installed in this young group and it will bear fruit. "We're not there yet but we're going to be a bloody good team going forward," Gatland said. "I'm proud of the effort and today is about learning about game management."
But for England, they will take away from this a performance where there was steady improvement, but above all, a game where they managed to get a win back at Twickenham. Instead of boos, there were cheers. That's what George wanted.
"I loved every second of it -- from the walk in to the final whistle," George said after the game. "Do we want a better performance? Of course. I loved every second of it and we felt a huge amount of pride and noise from the stands. That's the first step. It's not going to be exactly how we want it, but getting back to a win at Twickenham was important."
As the England supporters streamed out of the stadium, the overwhelming emotion was one of relief, and quiet satisfaction. One supporter was there in the concourse chain-smoking. "I don't know why we do this to ourselves," he said, smiling and exhaling in relief all in one. But that's why they keep on coming back. There's burgeoning belief, a recognition of what this England team is trying to do, and relief at seeing them win again.