Rugby: England edge out Wales to maintain Six Nations title bid

England's Marcus Smith in action against Wales. PHOTO: REUTERS

TWICKENHAM, UNITED KINGDOM (AFP) - England maintained their Six Nations title bid and all but ended reigning champions Wales' hopes of a successful defence with a 23-19 win in an error-strewn contest at Twickenham on Saturday (Feb 26).

England, 17-0 up early in the second half, were still well ahead at 23-12 going into the last minute.

Wales replacement Kieran Hardy, however, then gave the visitors hope of a remarkable comeback with a converted try.

But England, who saw fly-half Marcus Smith kick 18 points, with his Harlequins team-mate Alex Dombrandt scoring a try, saw the game out to inflict Wales' second defeat in three matches this Championship and maintain their own title bid.

"We know how proud the Welsh team is and we knew they were going to come back," Smith told ITV.

"We stuck at it as a team but we got the job done in the end."

England, beaten in a Calcutta Cup clash by Scotland, now have two wins and one defeat this Six Nations.

By contrast Wales, defeated by Ireland in the first round, have now suffered two losses in a Championship where unbeaten leaders France are still eyeing a Grand Slam.

England will likely need to improve if they are to beat Ireland at Twickenham on March 12 before finishing the Championship against France in Paris.

A scrappy first half ended with England leading 12-0 through four Smith penalties.

England extended their advantage to 17-0 early in the second half when No 8 Dombrandt pounced on an over-thrown line-out from Wales hooker Ryan Elias.

Wales, however, hit back with two tries in seven minutes from wing Josh Adams and inside centre Nick Tompkins to leave England with a slender 17-12 advantage going into the last quarter.

Smith then put England two scores in front with a well-struck penalty from 45 metres before an effort from a similar distance nine minutes from time gave them apparent breathing space at 23-12.

Wales frustrated

Wales captain Dan Biggar was proud of the way his team fought back but told the BBC his over-riding emotion was "frustration".

"I'm really pleased with the character shown by the lads to get ourselves back in the game," he said.

"We spoke all week about a fast start and I'm really disappointed we went 17-0 down."

Wales' next match sees them facing France in Cardiff in a fortnight, with Biggar warning: "If you give good teams head starts you're going to be up against it."

England only finalised their team shortly before kick-off, with Elliot Daly starting at outside centre after the injury-prone Manu Tuilagi had been ruled out with a hamstring problem on Thursday.

Back-row Courtney Lawes returned to captain the side after missing the first two rounds with concussion.

Wales, without a Six Nations win at Twickenham since 2012, were captained by Lawes' Northampton team-mate Biggar.

England lock Charlie Ewels came close to a try in the 21st minute, with Wales full-back Liam Williams yellow carded for handling in a ruck.

But England failed to capitalise on their man advantage and did little to excite a capacity crowd of over 81,000 in the opening 40 minutes.

But early in the second half, after Smith's grubber kick set up a Wales line-out near the visitors' line, Dombrandt caught a loose throw from Elias and then stretched over the line to ground the ball.

Smith was off target with the conversion but England were in command at 17-0 up.

Wales, stung into action, fought back in the 54th minute with scrum-half Tomos Williams' sharp pass creating space for fit-again wing Adams to score a try in the left corner.

Fly-half Biggar, however, missed the conversion and England were still two scores in front at 17-5.

But for a rejuvenated Wales, having kicked a penalty for an attacking line-out, quick ball allowed Tompkins to cross for a 61st-minute try that Biggar did convert.

Veteran scrum-half Ben Youngs came off the bench to replace Harry Randall and so break the England cap record of 114 Tests held by World Cup winner Jason Leonard before the frantic finale.

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