England manager Martin Johnson believes his side have plenty of room for improvement after they ended their eight-year Cardiff losing streak against Wales on Friday.
The Six Nations favorites withstood a ferocious late rally from Wales — who clawed their way back from 23-9 to 23-19 in a tense rear-guard action — to close out for a vital opening 26-19 triumph.
Victory was particularly sweet for Johnson, who last year saw England squander a winning position against Ireland with minutes to play and also suffered an agonizing two-point loss to France in their final game.
“We talked about going into the last 15 minutes and having to put it away and we did that,” Johnson said. “[Wales] will look at it and say they had chances and they did. But that’s the game and ultimately you’ve got to finish it off. I thought it was good for us when they came back with their try.”
“The crowd was in the game, momentum had shifted a bit, but we fought to the end and held on for the win. Some of the guys thought it was a bit ugly but you’ve got to win those Test matches,” he said.
England’s points had come through a try in each half from wing Chris Ashton, with man-of-the-match Toby Flood contributing 13 points with the boot. World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson added a late penalty to settle English nerves after a converted Morgan Stoddart try and a James Hook penalty had brought the Welsh to within four points of England with 10 minutes left.
Johnson was also happy with signs that England are gradually developing a clinical streak. That was evident when they absorbed early Welsh pressure before forging into a 10-0 lead on their first visits to the opposition 22.
Nevertheless Johnson was dismayed by mistakes which allowed Wales to gain a foothold in the match just when it looked as if England were in command.
“We talked about putting tries away when we got down there and we did that early on, which was great but then one of our best attacks in the first half almost ended with them scoring in the left-hand corner,” he said.
“If you win it’s great, if you lose it’s terrible,” Johnson said. “There’s only a thin line between those things and there was again today but there’s lots of improvement in this team. Every game you play in Test rugby is a different challenge. Italy at home next week is a different challenge and we need to be ready for it.”
“We’ll have a good weekend, and we’ll hand the rollickings out on Monday when we sit down and look at what went wrong,” he said.
Johnson is delighted however that after a difficult early start to his reign, which began in 2008, he finally has a settled group of players to call.
“The great thing is when you get the same bunch of guys playing together you get continuity. You can get the foundations in place so you can keep adding a little bit more detail each time,” he said. “So the guys get more confident doing what they’re doing so they’re more capable of executing under pressure. There’s still loads more come to them.”
The eye-catching form of fly-half Flood was particularly pleasing for Johnson.
“He’s a very smart guy and he wants to get better and listen and learn,” he said. “Overall he’s done a brilliant job. The great thing for us is you can see players get better week on week and the team as a whole.”
Johnson shrugged off suggestions that the win in Cardiff represented a defining match for his team, who now have three home games against Italy, Scotland and France, before a potentially climactic duel with Ireland.