By Rhys Thomas
This is it, the moment is upon us. Whoever wins the clash at Twickenham this weekend will almost certainly take the Championship – it’ll be impossible for anyone to catch England, and Wales will only have to beat perennial whipping boys Italy in Cardiff to reign victorious in Europe.
The last time these two teams faced off was also at Twickenham, in last year’s Rugby World Cup. Wales of course triumphed 25-28 helping to dump the hapless English out of their own tournament in what was an abject humiliation for the host nation. The injury-plagued Welsh side were knocked out by South Africa in the quarter-finals, but won plaudits for their battling performances in the face of such adversity.
Saturday’s game is of course another year and another tournament. Both sides are unbeaten – England the only team who can still win a Grand Slam, and Wales only dropping a point in their Dublin draw on the first weekend. In terms of quality, it is has undoubtedly been a poor Six Nations, but to be unbeaten at this stage is still an impressive achievement.
The bedrock of Wales’ game is their defence and their aversion to risk taking. This has been a staple of Warren Gatland’s game plan since he got the Head Coach job back in 2007, and it’s what has made Wales the most successful Six Nations team during this period with three championship titles, including two Grand Slams. The plan is relatively simple – kick long and push up defensively. The opposition’s attacking options are either to run at the red wall in front of them or engage in a game of kicking tennis which they are unlikely to win. Simple – and in Northern Hemisphere terms it’s very effective.
Their attacking play is no more complex. It is either ‘earning the right to go wide’ whereby the forwards keep the ball tight and move towards each touchline, or giving the ball to the big men and get them running hard at the defence. Petite English outside-half George Ford will surely have his hands full with wrecking balls Jamie Roberts and George North running right down his channel. There is no doubting that Wales have the players to play an expansive and exciting style of Rugby, but there is little likelihood we will get to see them in free flow at Twickenham.
As usual it is fascinating to read the English press. Before the World Cup many pundits were confidently predicting a New Zealand v England final. Look how that turned out. Now they’ve got a hard nosed Aussie coach in Eddie Jones they think they’re the greatest team the world have ever seen. We have been reading all week about how great Manu Tuilagi will be off the bench and what a wonderfully mature captain Dylan Hartley now is – we shall see.
England: Brown, Watson, Joseph, Farrell, Nowell, Ford, Youngs; Marler, Hartley (capt), Cole, Itoje, Kruis, Robshaw, Haskell, Vunipola
Replacements: Cowan-Dickie, Vunipola, Brookes, Launchbury, Clifford, Care, Tuilagi, Daly
Wales: Williams, Cuthbert, Davies, Roberts, North, Biggar, Davies; Evans, Baldwin, Lee, Davies, Alun Wyn Jones, Lydiate, Warburton (capt), Faletau
Replacements: Owens, James, Francis, Charteris, Tipuric, Webb, Priestland, Anscombe