By Mitch Phillips
CARDIFF, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Wales remained on course to retain their Six Nations title after a 23-15 victory over England on Saturday but they had to work desperately hard for it in a game of high tension and fluctuating fortunes.
Wales built healthy leads in each half but England refused to buckle despite again having two players yellow carded.
There only were five points in it until Stephen Jones slotted his fifth penalty of the day nine minutes from time to finally swing the game the home side’s way.
“We have to give England a lot of credit because they actually came here and tried to play a little bit of rugby, defended really way and it was a proper test match,” Wales coach Warren Gatland told BBC television.
“We got stronger as the game went on. They showed some real leadership and real character and I think this team’s developing nicely.”
Gatland’s side had looked well worth their 5/1 ON favourites tag in a dominant first quarter.
The champions began full of pace and furious energy and, despite sturdy resistance from a fired-up England defence, were 9-0 up after 20 minutes via two Jones penalties and one for Leigh Halfpenny.
At that point England had given away seven penalties, to none by the hosts, and having lost Mike Tindall to another yellow card for killing the ball, things looked ominous.
However, while down to 14 they struck out of nowhere as Riki Flutey made ground with a jinking run through the middle. Andy Goode kicked on and the speedy Paul Sackey touched down.
The try lifted England and they enjoyed some bright possession that led to more points from a Goode drop goal.
Wales revved it up again through their backs but England, with recalled flanker Joe Worsley tackling like a Dervish, kept them at bay to reach halftime only 9-8 down.
If the visitors were feeling good about their comeback it took only a minute for things to swing back Wales’s way.
A charge by Jamie Roberts forced England into a desperate and illegal defence of their line and Goode was sin binned, the second week running that England had received two yellow cards.
Jones slotted the subsequent penalty and moments later the Millennium Stadium was in uproar as Wales cut loose.
Fullback Lee Byrne made 30 metres and sent in winger Halfpenny to score in the corner as the lead was suddenly back to nine points and with thousands in the ground still taking their seats.
After another Jones penalty England brought on Toby Flood and he quickly combined well with the quick-stepping Flutey to send Delon Armitage through for his first international try as England refused to lie down.
They were desperately close to levelling too as Sackey was inches away from touching down a clever Harry Ellis kick.
The tension was cranked up for 10 minutes as both sides probed but when England infringed at the breakdown again Jones slotted from 40 metres to take the lead to two scores.
Flood had an immediate chance to hit back but missed his penalty shot and Wales saw out the remainder to make it two out of two following last week’s success in Edinburgh.
“Despite the penalties and the sin binnings, we kept ourselves in the game,” England manager Martin Johnson said.
“Ultimately there were too many penalties but in saying that if we executed we still could have overcome that...There were opportunities out there for us to win a test match so it’s really disappointing we didn’t take them.”
Next up as Wales seek back-to-back grand slams is a trip to Paris on Feb. 27, while England visit Ireland the following day.
Editing by Padraic Halpin