Owain Jones, Rugby World Editor
The big one. At least for those fans either side of Offa’s Dyke. 2012 is a very rare vintage in the recent history of these great rivals because Wales will amble out at Twickenham as nailed-on favourites, for only the second time in quarter-of-a-century. Even in 2008 where they gained a first win in 20 years, in the 26-19 win, Wales still went in as long-shots. This week, England have been trumpeted as underdogs, but history tells us the margins will be wafer-thin. England currently edge the all-time table with 56 victories to Wales’ 54, so expect a ‘seat of the pants’ thriller.
New boys v big boys
Followers of the Red Rose may well shift uneasily in their seats when they realize this is England’s most inexperienced First XV since 1989. A bold selection by Stuart Lancaster sees an England side which has amassed just 182 caps between them, with seven starters boasting less than three caps. Compare this to Wales’ bench which has 230 caps and you can see why the visitors hold the advantage when it comes to experience. Another area Wales have the edge is size. Only Leigh Halfpenny stands under 6ft in their backline, and five of their backs, Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, George North and Alex Cuthbert weigh in at over 16 stones. It is a truly gargantuan backline and England give away more than two stones a man to their adversaries, but the England defence is nothing if not resolute and they will not be giving yards away cheaply
One of Wales’ few weak points is in the lineout. After misfiring all-too frequently during the Ireland and Scotland games, they will be hoping the inexperienced Ken Owens can find his jumpers on a regular basis. Warren Gatland will have certainly parachuted in the experienced Alun Wyn Jones to shore up any weaknesses. Correspondingly, Stuart Lancaster will want England debutant Geoff Parling to be delivering his team-mates with clean ball off the top and Dylan Hartley to be at his miscreant best, trying to upset the Welsh rhthym. Up front, Alex Corbisiero had his best game for England against Italy and Dan Cole is maturing into a fine tighthead, but they’ll be up against Lions props Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, for who the term ‘world-class’ is regularly bandied about.
Coaching mind games
Unusually, there have been no ‘famed’ Gatland barbs thrown in the direction of Twickenham. Not yet anyway. Whether that’s out of respect for rookie international coach, Stuart Lancaster, or whether he has encountered one public backlash too many – his comments about a prop faking an injury in the wake of the Rugby World Cup semi-final didn’t go down too well – no one will know, but for the moment, the mutual respect between opposing camps is almost unheard of.
Wales have their inspirational captain Sam Warburton back and we will soon see if his dead leg against Ireland has dulled any of his scavenging instincts around the breakdown. England’s own No 7, captain Chris Robshaw has acquitted himself well, but this will surely be the toughest test yet for a player who doesn’t regularly play at openside for his club, Harlequins. Elsewhere Tom Croft will be looking to get around the park and do his bit at the back of the lineout, while the destructive Ben Morgan will be hoping to smash a few holes in the Wales defensive line to free his support runners. Wales will assign Dan Lydiate to be Morgan’s silent assassin, a brief he fulfilled so effectively against Sean O’Brien at the Rugby World Cup. Toby Faletau, who has been relatively quiet so far in the competition, will also be looking to make plenty of ball carries deep into England territory.
Much has been made of the fledgling England half-back combination, and rightly so. To say England’s No 9 and No 10 are wet behind the ears is an understatement, they have just three caps between them, so expect the always abrasive Mike Phillips to try and give Lee Dickson a verbal and physical assault for 80 mintues. If England can get on the front foot however, Dickson can provide the quick service to a flat-lying Owen Farrell to test the Wales backline. The duel between the seemingly nerveless Farrell and Rhys Priestland, who was similarily mistrusted for his inexperience before coping with such aplomb again England in August, will be fascinating. Free of the shackles of kicking responsibility, expect Priestland to be at his creative best, trying to unleash the Welsh juggernauts in midfield
Chris Ashton has cut a solitary figure out wide in England’s first two foreign forays, but he is undoubtedly a world-class finishing talent, so expect any glimmers of a half-chance to be snaffled up with relish by the wing. Ashton and David Strettle will have to use all of their defensive nous to keep the Welsh wide men at bay. Fergus McFadden and Greig Laidlaw have both found to their detriment in the first two games that getting in front of North and Cuthbert, is the easy part, but stopping them with a sniff of the tryline, is an altogether different proposition.
On paper, even though England have a home-advantage, it looks like Wales’ game to lose. They have more experience, power and shown more finishing prowess than the hosts to date, but sport has a funny way of upsetting the perceived natural order, and England, under Stuart Lancaster, will go into the game with nothing to lose. Expect the hosts to come out with credit after a valiant performance, but for the Welsh to take the game by four points. I’ll say, Wales 23-19 England. Enjoy the game!
England v Wales, Twickenham, Saturday 25th February, ko: 4pm, LIVE BBC1
England: Foden; Ashton, Tuilagi, Barritt, Strettle; Farrell, Dickson; Corbisiero, Hartley, Cole, Botha, Parling, Croft, Robshaw (capt), Morgan.
Replacements: Webber, Stevens, Lawes, Dowson, Youngs, Flood, Brown.
Wales: Halfpenny, Cuthbert, J Davies, Roberts, North, Priestland, Phillips, Jenkins, Owens, A Jones, AW Jones, Evans, Lydiate, Warburton, Faletau
Replacements: Hibbard, James, R Jones, Tipuric, L Williams, Hook, S Williams
Referee: Steve Walsh