LONDON (AFP) - Maro Itoje starred as England beat Wales 25-21 at Twickenham on Saturday to put one hand on the Six Nations title and keep their Grand Slam hopes alive.
But England, 16-0 up at the break and leading 22-7 early in the second half, had to endure an anxious finish as Wales scored two converted tries in four minutes near full-time through George North and Taulupe Faletau after home prop Dan Cole was sent to the sin-bin.
Saracens lock Itoje, given his Test debut this season by new England coach Eddie Jones, had a superb all-round match as the home side gained a measure of revenge for their World Cup defeat by Wales.
England had a commanding half-time lead thanks to Anthony Watson’s converted try, from a move Itoje initiated, and three Owen Farrell penalties.
Fly-half Dan Biggar eventually got Wales on the scoreboard with a converted try.
But, with Farrell adding three more penalties, North and Faletau’s scores came too late to prevent an England win that was effectively sealed when the returning Manu Tuilagu forced North into touch in the dying seconds.
England’s victory made it four wins out of four under Australian boss Jones and ended Wales’ title hopes.
It also meant England had claimed the Triple Crown and they will have their first Six Nations title since 2011 with a round to spare if Scotland beat France at Murrayfield on Sunday.
Even if that result goes against them, England can still win the Championship and claim a first Grand Slam since their World Cup-winning year of 2003 if they beat France in Paris next Saturday.
“It was one game for 60 minutes and another for 20,” Jones told ITV Sport. “Luckily we got enough points in the first 60.”
Turning to Itoje, whom he’d once compared to a modest Vauxhall Viva saloon car, Jones said: “He’s a BMW now.”
When England and Wales last met, the Welsh had come back from a 10-point deficit to win 28-25 in a World Cup pool match at Twickenham in September – a result that played a major part in hosts England’s first-round exit.
But this time England held out and Wales coach Warren Gatland said they had deserved their victory.
“It was unlike us in the first half,” said the New Zealander.
“We looked tired and didn’t look enthusiastic. We outscored them 3-1 in terms of tries but it was Farrell’s kicks that were the difference.
“The best team won and I take my hat off to them.” England’s matchday 23 contained 13 survivors from their World Cup loss and one of them, Mike Brown, almost scored an early try.
However, the full-back cut inside when he might have gone for the corner and was tackled short of the try-line by Wales fly-half Dan Biggar.
At that stage England No.8 Billy Vunipola was outplaying childhood friend and Wales counterpart Faletau.
England soon attacked again and won a penalty that Farrell kicked for a 3-0 lead.
They then laid siege to the Welsh line.
Cole crossed but, with the grounding deemed inconclusive on replay, no try was awarded.
Jones had accused Wales of “illegal” scrummaging in the build-up, and from the ensuing five-metre home set-piece, South African referee Craig Joubert ruled Wales had infringed.
Farrell kicked a simple penalty and then landed a longer-range effort in the 20th minute to make it 9-0.
Wales kicked a penalty for an attacking line-out but Itoje, winning just his third cap, stole the ball off their throw.
The try England had threatened came in the 31st minute after Itoje burst through a couple of tackles off a ruck and fed Brown, whose pass sent had dashing wing Watson in at the left corner.
Wales needed a score but great ruck defence, led by Itoje, saw England win a relieving penalty.
Farrell’s early second-half penalty extended England’s advantage to 19-0.
By contrast, penalties were no longer an option for Wales.
England’s defence held firm until Biggar charged down opposing fly-half George Ford’s kick and ran in under the posts for a try he duly converted.
But Wales then saw captain Sam Warburton carried off after a clash with England flanker James Haskell.
England ended Tuilagi’s 21-month, largely injury-induced, Test exile by bringing the centre off the bench and Farrell kicked two more penalties.
However, Cole’s sin-binning with eight minutes left sparked a Welsh onslaught.
North burst clear down the left in the 74th minute and the wing set up Faletau’s try three minutes later but England held out.