By Charlie Morgan
Two teams intent on making history meet at Twickenham on Sunday. A win will see England secure a first Triple Crown since 2003 – an embarrassingly long wait. Conversely, Wales can bring themselves closer to the unique feat of three consecutive Six Nations titles with a victory.
Thanks to impressive successes last time out, both sides are buoyant and the fixture has delicious subplots. For a start, the visitors boast 12 Test Lions in their starting 15 and two more on the bench. Courtesy of Owen Farrell’s five-minute cameo in the decider last summer, England have one. There is also the small matter of last time these nations met – a 30-3 thumping that scarred Stuart Lancaster. But where exactly will this intriguing tie be decided?
Inside knowledge at the scrum
With 205 Test caps between them, Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins possess unparalleled nous and know-how. They also share a habit of growing into tournaments and enjoyed their most effective performance to date a fortnight ago against an accomplished French front row.
Losing four of their nine put-ins, England struggled badly during the nerve-shredding triumph over Ireland. David Wilson and Joe Marler are under immense scrutiny. Referee Romain Poite won’t hesitate to hand out penalties and cards, either – just ask the Wallabies.
One significant advantage for a relatively green pair of props is Graham Rowntree’s insight. On the past two Lions tours, ‘Wig’ has coached every one of Wales’ starting forwards apart from Luke Charteris. It still feels oddly conservative to say this about England at home, but while Courtney Lawes can be confident of disrupting the Welsh lineout platform, scrum parity will do just fine.
All-court dynamism meets the lumber-jackal duo
A number of factors conspired during Lancaster’s most humiliating loss last season, but the most marked was a glaring back-row imbalance that allowed Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau to run riot at the breakdown. Don’t expect a repeat.
Ben Morgan brings a ball-carrying presence that frees up Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw to hits rucks and direct linespeed – essential in stunting the uncompromising, round-the-corner approach. Athletic and imposing, Lawes combines very well with Joe Launchbury, who looks so different to the kid that cowered in Cardiff. Together, this five have the energy and subtle handling skills to run Wales off their feet.
However, Warburton was superb throughout the defeat of Les Bleus and Dan Lydiate scythed everything in sight so his skipper could get over the ball. Faletau is a pillar of consistent class and Alun-Wyn Jones could easily be inspired into a staggering shift.
Whoever ends up on top, the tussle between packs – not to mention a delicious Dylan Hartley-Richard Hibbard face-off – will be breathless in open play.
Four centres fight for the gainline
Their respective number 13 shirts presented Lancaster and Warren Gatland with interesting selection dilemmas this week. On the back of just a single domestic outing, two outstanding talents – Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Davies – became available.
In the event, only Davies features, with Gatland asserting that “special players demand special exceptions.” Fair enough. On form, the outside centre is one of the world’s most powerful, elusive runners and forms a revered axis alongside the resurgent, rock-like figure of Jamie Roberts – a central figure in firing Wales onto the front foot.
Tuilagi’s non-selection is a huge endorsement of Luther Burrell, but despite two tries in three games, the Northampton Saint will want to involve himself more. Midfield partner Billy Twelvetrees is crucial to that, and must be more composed in attack. Tenacious, industrious tackling is a pre-requisite for both men. There is nothing subtle about a ferocious, old-fashioned fight for the gainline.
Full-back battle royale
There are mouth-watering individual encounters across the back three – Hartpury College buddies Jonny May and Alex Cuthbert on one wing, sparky Jack Nowell and steamroller George North on the other – but at 15 we have something especially enticing.
Mike Brown simply relishes facing illustrious adversaries. His stunning season so far has seen him outplay Israel Folau, Stuart Hogg and Rob Kearney – only Israel Dagg has matched the Harlequin. If Wales implement an in-field kicking game as Shuan Edwards has suggested, they have a truly world-class counter-attacker to contend with.
While Brown is red-hot, Leigh Halfpenny is enduring a rather flat campaign. Showered with accolades in 2013, the Toulon-bound Cardiff Blue looks mechanical and tentative. A tally of 16 carries is far, far below every other full-back in the competition. It’s almost as if the interception he threw to Michele Campagnaro last month has created some lingering, paralyzing doubts.
Of course Halfpenny remains a phenomenal player and, should he pop in the 13 channel outside Davies, he will cause havoc. Accuracy from the tee is a given and bravery in back-field won’t ever desert him. But if a Lions Test outfit was being picked tomorrow by anyone but Gatland, Brown would walk in. He’ll want to prove that on Sunday, too.
Is there a Welsh Achilles heel at half-back?
Delme Parfitt of the Western Mail stirred the bubbling, boiling pot this week by picking his composite XV from players on both teams. Unsurprisingly, not many of Lancaster’s charges made the cut – three to be precise. At full-time we’ll have a better idea of whether or not that figure is understated, but Parfitt’s preference was still telling. Lawes made the cut, bringing England half-backs Danny Care and Owen Farrell with him. Rhys Webb and Rhys Priestland were ignored.
Keeping Mike Phillips on the bench, Gatland has provided Webb with a justifiable vote of confidence. The scrum-half was brilliant on full debut against France, whippy service injecting pace into Wales’ phase-play. Priestland has been quietly good too and should be credited in some part for Roberts’ form. That said, defence guru Andy Farrell certainly remembers the fly-half’s meltdown at Twickenham two years ago and will want to unsettle the Scarlet. Lawes does a superb trade in roughing up first-receivers.
Finally adding a measured kicking game to the audacious snipes and support lines, Care is a stand-out of the past month. Farrell junior has allowed moments of indecision to creep in after a fantastic start in Paris, but his temperament drives his side’s emotional intensity.
England could only muster a total of 35 per cent territory during their 30-3 loss last March (an excruciating 28 per cent in the second half). With Wales crowding them to cause claustrophobia, that proved terminal. The four half-backs have a particularly important game of chess ahead of them.