England denied Wales top spot in the world rankings as Billy Vunipola led a fine forward effort in a 33-19 win at Twickenham on Sunday in their opening Rugby World Cup warm-up match.
Six Nations champions Wales, who kicked off on the back of a 14-match unbeaten streak, would have gone top of the standings following reigning world champions New Zealand’s shock 47-26 loss to Australia on Saturday had they avoided defeat.
“To have a structured game suits us more and for most of that game we stuck to it,” Vunipola told Sky Sports.
“There were times Wales crept in but they’re a great side and that’s going to happen.”
England led by 17 points early in the second half before two Wales tries in quick succession from George North and replacement Wyn Jones cut the gap to just five points.
England had squandered a 31-0 lead in a 38-38 draw with Scotland last time out in March. Back then they played a far more expansive game, but this time they made sure of victory.
“I wrote down on a bit of paper before the game I thought we’d win 33-12,” England coach Eddie Jones told the BBC.
Wales coach Warren Gatland tried to downplay the defeat ahead of next week’s warm-up return clash in Cardiff.
“We weren’t at our best, especially in the first half – a couple of soft tries,” said Gatland, who will stand down as Wales boss after Japan 2019. “England went back to traditionally what they’re really good at. We’ll be a lot better next week,” the New Zealander insisted.
The bulk of the Wales side at Twickenham had clinched this season’s Six Nations Grand Slam.
England, by contrast, were fielding an experimental side, with scrum-half Willi Heinz given a Test debut and named vice-captain.
They had been forced into three late changes after injuries to centre Henry Slade, flanker Sam Underhill and wing Ruaridh McConnochie with Jonathan Joseph, Joe Cokanasiga and Lewis Ludlum all propelled into the starting XV.
England had a 14-0 lead as early as the 15th minute following two converted tries.
Powerhouse No8 Vunipola ripped the ball clear from a close-range maul to force his way over the line.
Fly-half George Ford and Heinz combined to work the ball on the left hand side before wing Cokanasiga crashed over for their second.
A brilliant solo effort from scrum-half Gareth Davies got Wales back into the game in the 22nd minute.
England lost impressive flanker Tom Curry to injury and Wales saw fly-half Gareth Anscombe, later on crutches, also go off before half-time.
Wales hooker Ken Owens missed captain Alun Wyn Jones, making his 135th Test appearance, at a line-out and hooker Cowan-Dickie caught the ball to score his first Test try.
An early second-half penalty saw Ford extend England’s lead to 24-7.
But Wales hit back when North powered over from a close range scrum, and they soon had another try when substitute prop Jones went over.
This time Dan Biggar converted but Ford gave England breathing space with three penalties, the last one putting them 30-19 up with just seven minutes left.
And there was still time for England full-back Elliot Daly to land a late drop-goal to the delight of a capacity crowd of over 80,000.