THE Group of Death is suddenly living up to its billing for Rugby World Cup hosts England as they lost to injury-hit Wales in remarkable circumstances on Saturday night.
Stuart Lancaster, whose side now face a gargantuan game against Australia at Twickenham in a week’s time to keep their quarter-final hopes alive, looked well in control for most of the evening against the visitors.
They were 25-18 ahead heading into the last 10 minutes and had just seen Wales, already depleted by injuries, have centre Scott Williams and full-back Liam Williams stretchered off as well.
However, with influential fly-half Dan Biggar taking control, Wales scored a try out of nothing with nine minutes to go as he unleashed Hallam Amos down the left flank and the winger kicked infield where unmarked scrum-half Gareth Davies touched down for Biggar to level and silence Twickenham.
He then held his nerve, too, to slot the 75th minute penalty from near halfway that won it after the otherwise excellent Mike Brown didn’t release when taking a high kick.
Nevertheless, erring England still blew two great opportunities to take something from the game.
They kicked to the corner with two minutes to go, when a penalty would have levelled the contest, only to then see determined Wales them drive them into touch from the resulting line-out.
They had one more go but this time replacement scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth fumbled. It was carnage and so, fittingly, man of the match Biggar was able to finally kick the ball out and start wild Welsh celebrations.
England fly-half Owen Farrell had been metronomic with his own boot, enjoying a 100 per cent record from the tee, and kicking well generally in open play to suggest Lancaster’s decision to select him ahead of George Ford wasn’t such a big call afterall.
Sam Burgess, too, was solid and efficient, the Yorkshireman putting in some thunderous tackles and carrying well from inside centre, although the expected avalanche of midfield Welsh explosions for the ex-Bradford Bull to contend with on his first Test start never really emerged.
The same could be said of the game itself; it simmered but didn’t truly reach fever pitch until those dramatic final moments.
England led 16-9 at the break and will rue not being further ahead.
Although there was few clear try-scoring chances, they had dominated Wales in the scrum and caused them problems at the line-out at times, too.
However, they did score the only try of the half, a delightful effort from in-form Jonny May in the 27th minute although it was his fellow winger Anthony Watson who did the initial damage with a fine break through the middle from a line-out set-move.
Brown, as busy as ever, took it further on and then Ben Youngs, the scrum-half, showed great vision at the ruck to see Wales short-numbered down the blindside where he sent May scampering over from 10m.
Farrell converted having already slotted two penalties and a long-range drop-goal when - in reply to Biggar’s two Welsh penalties - one England attack had looked like petering out to nothing.
May showed real dare and brilliance to escape his own goalline and Brown, too, produced a marvellous kick to ease some rare Welsh pressure but it was England who had most of the more threatening play, Watson and May, in particular, both looking sharp in possession.
They were pegged back to 16-9 just before the break when Scott Williams, the outside centre, did escape Farrell in midfield and the hosts infringed for Biggar to kick again.
The second half started off far less free-flowing, Farrell and Biggar each exchanging two penalties apiece before the hour, although England could have score after Farrell’s first if Ben Youngs, who had collected the restart and dummied clear down the right channel, had found Watson rather than venturing infield.
Wales did then threaten - Roberts almost punched through only to be dragged down by Burgess, and Farrell had to get across to force a Liam Williams error - but after those injuries, Farrell’s 70th minute penalty looked to be the start of England’s strong finish.
Instead, it was the Welsh who powered home putting them in charge of Pool A.
Wales captain Sam Warburton said: “Unbelievable. I’m gutted (because) we’ve lost Jon Davies, Rhys Webb, Leigh Halfpenny, Cory Allen, and a couple of others go off then and hopefully they’re okay.
“But it just shows the sort of spirit and the strength of the squad that despite the fact we’ve lost those sorts of top quality players, we can still come to a place like Twickenham, one of the hardest places in the world, and get an away victory.
“It’s definitely up there with one of my best wins.
“Credit to England, they threw absolutely everything at us, they played really well and we really had to be at our best in defence, we gave a few too many penalties away but I’m lost for words, amazing win.”
England: Brown; Watson, Barritt, Burgess (Ford 70), May; Farrell, B Youngs (Wigglesworth 50); Marler (M Vunipola 61), T Youngs (Webber 67), Cole (Brookes 71), Parling, Lawes (Launchbury 40), Wood, Robshaw, B Vunipola (Haskell 63).
Wales: L Williams (Priestland 67); North, S Williams (Cuthbert 63), Roberts, Amos; Biggar, G Davies; G Jenkins, Baldwin (Owens 49), Francis (Lee 49), B Davies (Charteris 70), Wyn Jones, Lydiate (Tipuric 70), Warburton, Faletau.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)