WALES versus Italy will be an aperitif rather than a coronation after Warren Gatland's side left it too late in their Six Nations title showdown at Twickenham.

Eddie Jones' side will travel to Paris next Saturday chasing the Grand Slam while Gatland will surely ring the changes for the Azzurri even if a charge at the death in London papered over some chasms.

Their title hopes went up in smoke after a first half shocker; there would have been some angry words in the away changing room as they sucked on their oranges with the scoreboard reading 16-0, a deficit even greater than in 2008 when they stormed back from 16-6 on their way to a clean sweep of victories.

It was arguably the worst half of rugby of the Gatland era, perhaps only rivalled by the horror show in Durban in 2014 when they trailed the Springboks 28-9. They offered little in attack, slipped off tackles in defence (missing 19) and struggled at the lineout.

Things got better in the closing stages to give a sniff of what would have ranked as their greatest ever comeback win but on the whole it was a pedestrian, lethargic display.

South Wales Argus:

The nightmare first 40 minutes, combined with a pretty good display by the hosts, laid the foundations for England hitting back after their hurtful World Cup defeat when the sides met in September.

The Star Wars theme had been played at a sparse Twickenham around half an hour before kick-off and this was certainly a case of Revenge of the Sith.

Victory won’t make up for being dumped out of their own tournament but a title, let alone a Grand Slam, would help in the rebuilding process.

Wales, meanwhile, have plenty of pondering to do as they prepare for a three-Test tour to New Zealand. What took them so long? Good fitness is not a tactic to win internationals on its own.

England made an extremely bright start, twice troubling Wales down the right with the second occasion seeing full-back Mike Brown scorch clear only to mysteriously not back himself and be brought down by last man Dan Biggar five metres shy of the line.

As the Harlequins man went to ground the ball was dislodged by Liam Williams but the visitors had a lucky escape when scrum-half Ben Youngs knocked the ball on inches short.

Another burst, this time by fly-half George Ford, worked England into the 22 in the ninth minute and though Wales scrambled well to defend their line, centre Owen Farrell made it 3-0 when centre Jamie Roberts failed to roll away after smashing home skipper Dylan Hartley.

It was one-way traffic and it took desperate defence to deny tighthead Dan Cole from close range, the TMO deeming there was no clear grounding after the pack had hammered away at the line, but a penalty from the resulting scrum against Samson Lee enabled Farrell to make it 6-0 after 18 minutes.

Wales had their first sniff straight from the restart when George North was released down the left but the diminutive Ford showed that he is no doormat by downing the giant wing and the ball was knocked on by Roberts when it was spread wide.

Gatland would have been furious at the indiscipline of his charges – he had demanded a lower penalty count in the immediate aftermath of the win against France – and an offence for not rolling away by Lydiate after downing Billy Vunipola gave Farrell another shot at goal that he took.

Wales had not fired a shot and were missing their first-up tackles but the only consolation was that it could have quite easily have been worse that 9-0.

The fear was that half an hour of near constant defence would take its toll while referee Craig Joubert was losing patience with the men in red, instructing Sam Warburton to issue a warning about a sin binning.

They were tetering on the brink and a hammer blow came in the 32nd minute when England got the try that their dominance deserved, lock Maro Itoje going through the tackle of Dan Biggar before releasing Brown to put right wing Anthony Watson over.

Farrell’s conversion made it 16-0 and it was a long, long way back with Gatland’s men in a similar position to the Aviva Stadium on opening weekend.

On that occasion they had reduced the deficit through the right boot of Biggar and a try by Taulupe Faletau on the stroke of half-time.

They went on the hunt for a score to provide hope before the interval by powering away in the 22 only to come up against a home defence inspired by novice lock Itoje, the Saracens man tackling, disrupting and then jackalling to win a penalty to clear.

A dire first half ended with Wales on the attack… only to go off their feet to release the pressure gift their hosts an easy escape.

Gatland resisted the temptation to ring the changes at half-time but his players wouldn’t have long to save their bacon before the bench was called into action.

The second half didn’t start with a bang, for the visitors at least, with Farrell maintaining his perfect record from the tee to make it 19-0.

Finally Wales then showed some bite after wing Alex Cuthbert was released down the right, forcing England to infringe in front of their sticks.

Warburton had no option but to call for the scrum, repeating that decision after Cole offended and then the hosts didn’t push straight. The ball finally emerged next time only for England to win the turnover.

However, the lifeline came second late when Biggar charged down Ford and showed composure to dot down by the sticks before adding the extras.

At 19-7 there were a few nerves in the home crowd although England had time to gather their thoughts when Warburton was treated on the pitch before being carted off to great applause, giving the thumbs-up after a blow to the head.

The hosts were wobbling with Wales more of a threat with ball in hand, although the clock was not their friend and one more penalty would kill off their hopes as the game entered the final quarter.

And it duly came in the 65th minute with replacement lock Luke Charteris’ first contribution of note to give away a three-pointer by not rolling away.

No sooner had Farrell made it 22-7 than he stretched the buffer to 18 points.

Wales attempted to strike back not through cunning but their driving lineout with Cole yellow-carded after bringing down a maul that the backs added weight to.

However, just as they were attempting to strike, a penalty was awarded against replacement prop Tomas Francis for his fingers making contact with the eyes of the sin-binned Leicester front rower. The Exeter man escaped further sanction (for now) after television footage could only show one angle of the incident.

Yet from nowhere Wales put the foot down to give the 14 men some serious problems.

South Wales Argus:

First they reduced the deficit with a well-worked moved – finally – that saw Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies combine to give North a run-in for a try in three successive Tests.

The extras were added for 25-14 and then it was game on when a stunning attack that started straight from the restart with a length of the field move that ended with Faletau reaching over from close range, Rhys Priestland converting for 25-21.

England had imploded and had two and a half minute to hang on. They did… just with Manu Tuilagi barging North into touch to secure the Triple Crown.

England: M Brown, A Watson, J Joseph (E Daly 74), O Farrell, J Nowell, G Ford (M Tuilagi 63), B Youngs (D Care 63), J Marler (M Vunipola 56), D Hartley (captain, L Cowan-Dickie 71), D Cole, M Itoje, G Kruis (J Launchbury 78), C Robshaw (K Brookes 71), J Haskell (J Clifford 67), B Vunipola.

Scorers: try – A Watson; conversion – O Farrell; penalties – O Farrell (6)

Wales: L Williams, A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North, D Biggar (R Priestland 73), G Davies (R Webb 63), R Evans (P James 53), S Baldwin (K Owens 53), S Lee (T Francis 53), B Davies, AW Jones (L Charteris 63), D Lydiate, S Warburton (captain, J Tipuric 56), T Faletau.

Scorers: tries – D Biggar, G North, T Faletau; conversions – D Biggar, R Priestland (2)

Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)