An air of pessimism pervades in Wales as they welcome in-form England to Llanelli in round three of the competition. No doubting who the favourites are for this one…
Autumn Nations Cup Wales v England preview
On the surface, this Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup match at Parc y Scarlets is a lopsided contest (4pm). Wales, ranked ninth in the world, are in an apparent state of flux having lost six in a row before stopping the rot last weekend against more lowly opponents in Georgia.
In contrast, England, second in the world, are on a six-match winning streak that includes a 246-tackle defensive masterclass last week against Ireland.
Rugby World analyst Sean Holley captured the mood of the Welsh nation when speaking on Scrum V. “We’re lacking a bit of ball carrying, X-factor, we seem to be running into brick walls,” said the former Ospreys and Bristol coach.
“We’re struggling at the contact area, giving penalties away or the ball is being slowed up. With that (set-piece) platform against Georgia you would expect us to score more points.”
The pall of gloom would lift instantly should Wales spring an upset this weekend with a side featuring only eight of the 23-man squad on duty for the defeat at Twickenham last March. The likes of Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Botham, Johnny Williams and Louis Rees-Zammit embody a new generation for Wales.
England will hope to pummel them into the ground, a message reinforced by their choice of six forwards on the bench. Many is the time they have crossed Offa’s Dyke with high hopes and returned smarting from defeat. They lost twice in Cardiff last year but this time will benefit from the empty stands at the home of the Scarlets.
DID YOU KNOW? England’s only previous Test in Llanelli was a 0-0 draw in 1887
England appear to hold the advantage in any area you care to mention. As Ugo Monye pointed out, people often don’t factor in emotion when appraising likely outcomes. Yet the former England wing added: “It’s hard to look past an England victory. Their set-piece, their defence and their tactical delivery is so much better that they will find a way to win.”
In terms of the competition context, a point will suffice for England to clinch top spot in Pool A and so advance to the Autumn Nations Cup final.
England’s last match of the tournament takes place at Twickenham on 6 December and will see spectators admitted following new rulings. Sports events in London, a Tier Two area, can host up to 2,000 fans and the RFU will gift 400 seats to NHS workers. Six hundred tickets will go to players’ families, local rugby clubs and sponsors, while 1,000 tickets will be sold.
An emphatic defeat would pile the pressure on new Wales coach Wayne Pivac, but people should remember that even the greatest coaches endure sticky patches. Eddie Jones presided over five successive defeats just two years ago, while Wales lost eight in a row on Warren Gatland’s watch in 2012-13 – just before they won the 2013 Six Nations. It’s a fickle old business.
The teams’ last meeting was an eventful affair just before the first lockdown. England racked up a big lead before two late tries – after cards for Ellis Genge and Manu Tuilagi – produced a somewhat misleading 33-30 scoreline. Watch highlights of that Six Nations match here.
What’s the big team news?
Wales make eight changes, not all of them expected. Liam Williams has a “nasty facial injury” and drops out to accommodate goalkicking ace Leigh Halfpenny. Lloyd Williams makes his first start for four years and his first against a European nation. And who would have predicted a back row of Lewis-Hughes, Botham and Toby Faletau when this season started?
In fact, only five of the XV started against England in March: Halfpenny, Biggar, Nick Tompkins and the two locks, Jake Ball and Alun Wyn Jones. Halfpenny and scrum-half Williams are the only members of the back division who haven’t played domestically in England, an indication of Pivac’s increasing interest in drawing on the Gallagher Premiership.
Absent players include three frontline back-rowers: Justin Tipuric took a knock to the head from Beka Saginadze last weekend, Josh Navidi also has concussion issues and Ross Moriarty continues to be thwarted by an ankle injury.
England have kept changes to the bare minimum. Ollie Lawrence’s hip injury meant a change in midfield was guaranteed, but George Ford was always likely to return anyway after recovering from an achilles injury. The Tiger comes back in at ten, with Owen Farrell shifting to 12 alongside Henry Slade – a centre pairing last seen on the 2018 South Africa tour.
The rest of the side is unchanged but there is movement on the bench. Wing Anthony Watson (ankle) and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie (knee) return from injury as ‘finishers’ and there’s a place too for Jack Willis. The back-row had a strong debut against Georgia two weeks ago and then returned to Wasps to win Match of the Match plaudits against Bristol last Sunday.
What have the coaches said?
Wales head coach Wayne Pivac: “Saturday is another great opportunity for us and for this squad. It’s another chance for us to take what we’ve been doing in training into match day.
“We’re looking forward it. We know what we need to do and we are focused on that.”
On Wales’ injuries: “It’s unfortunate but it’s going to create opportunities for others and in the loose forwards, it’s young James Botham and Shane Lewis-Hughes.
“They’re a couple of guys with big futures and we’re going to get the questions about them asked in this particular match. We’re up against a very strong England team, who are going to bring a lot of intensity. What a match for these guys to be tested in.”
On the half-backs: “Lloyd has come in and done everything that has been asked. It’s been about speed to the breakdown. When he’s been on the park, we’ve played some of our best rugby, so he gets an opportunity there.
“We looked closely at what we’re doing at ten. We’re going to give both guys (Dan Biggar and Callum Sheedy) a chunk of game time. Callum will get out there for a decent part of the second half to see how he goes in this company.”
England head coach Eddie Jones: Jones said: “We’re expecting another tough match, and at the home of Welsh rugby where the heart and soul of their game is.
“Twelve months ago Wales were Grand Slam champions and three points from a World Cup final, so we know what they are capable of.
“We’ve picked the best 23 players for the battle and we’re looking forward to it greatly.”
Any interesting statistics?
* Wales have lost eight of the previous 11 fixtures with England. But they’ve beaten them on their two previous visits to the Principality, both in 2019
* England have the best tackle success rate so far in the Autumn Nations Cup, at 93%. Wales are the only other side above 90%
* Jonny May’s brace last week has put him joint second in England’s all-time try-scoring list. His three tries against Wales have all been scored at Twickenham
* England have the best lineout success in the competition (97%, 35/35). Wales have the poorest rate (71%, 20/28)
* No 8 Billy Vunipola tops the Autumn Nations Cup tackle chart. He’s made 34 tackles to go with a team-high 21 carries for England
* Wales have nilled two teams this year – Italy (42-0) in the Six Nations and Georgia (18-0) last weekend. Only on two other occasions in the professional era – against Japan and Fiji – have they kept an opponent scoreless
* Alun Wyn Jones has played 21 consecutive Tests against England – the most by a Welshman against a single opponent
* At 19 years 293 days, Louis Rees-Zammit last week became the youngest Wales try-scorer since Harry Robinson against the Barbarians in 2012
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
Wales v England, Saturday 28 November, Parc y Scarlets
The match kicks off at 4pm and will be live on Amazon Prime, S4C and Premier Sports (Ireland). There is commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and BBC Radio Wales.
If you’re outside the UK and Ireland, check out our guide to Autumn Nations Cup coverage around the world.
Holding the whistle is Romain Poite, whom Joe Marler calls his favourite referee and names in his Fantasy Drinking team because he’s “laid-back and chilled” and loves a glass of wine.
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Poite’s French compatriots Alex Ruiz and Pascal Gauzere are the assistant referees while Ireland’s Brian MacNeice is the TMO.
What are the line-ups?
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny; Louis Rees-Zammit, Nick Tompkins, Johnny Williams, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Lloyd Williams; Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Samson Lee, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Botham, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Will Rowlands, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Callum Sheedy, 23 Owen Watkin.
England: Elliot Daly; Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell, Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury, Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Jonny Hill, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Jack Willis, 22 Dan Robson, 23 Anthony Watson.
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