This weekend’s England v Wales game has been derided as a waste of space by some – it is nothing of the sort especially for the coaches and the players on the pitch.
If a few rounds of verbal sparring between Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland can’t whip up enthusiasm for a Test match at Twickenham then the old game really is in trouble. England play Wales on Sunday at Twickenham but it is fair to say that most have greeted the fixture with a shrug of the shoulders of the ‘so-what’ variety.
It has been accused of being a cash cow match, meaningless in the great scheme of things, and another example of flogging players to within an inch of their lives. England faced Wales at Twickenham twice already this season, Wales will have played nearly as much on the Old Cabbage Patch this campaign than they have in Cardiff, thanks to the Rugby World Cup, and the players involved in the Premiership final between Saracens and Exeter the day before will not be involved. So it does not really amount to a hill of beans.
Well, tell that to Ellis Genge, tell that to Tommy Taylor and tell that to Kyle Sinckler or Teimana Harrison. None of them have been capped by England but they might just get a new hat at the weekend at the post-match shindig and have to sing a song on the team bus. While you are at it, you can tell that to Gatland and Jones as well.
This match has a few things going for it and not just for the men looking to get off the mark internationally.
Every Test coach you meet moans that they don’t get enough time with their players. Well, England have had a training camp in Brighton already, minus the blokes involved in the Premiership semi-finals, and are back at Pennyhill Park ahead of the Welsh game with only Saracens and Chiefs players on the missing list.
Most of the Welsh players have not had a hit-out since 7 May, when the Pro12 finished its regular season, because their regions did not get through to the business end in that tournament, and also flunked in Europe. They probably fancy a run before they face the All Blacks at Eden Park, where the world champions have not been beaten since 1994, on 11 June. You don’t want to go into that one cold.
So Gatland and Jones get to have a proper smash-up – this is England against Wales after all – a couple of weeks before facing the Kiwis, and in Jones’ case, the Wallabies who did for most of his tour squad’s World Cup hopes. Everyone is a winner.
And the Premiership clubs will be winning as well. The game has been put on so they can get some financial compensation for their season being railroaded by the World Cup. Directors of Rugby in the English league have had a full-on match every week this season, which started late because of the global tournament, and have had no LV=Cup weekends to give their top dogs the week off and boy don’t we know about it.
But as Jones pointed out on Sunday some of his players, who were involved in the disastrous World Cup, have only played about 20 games this season. That is not the stuff that burn-out is made of.
It might not have the fervour of an England Six Nations game in Cardiff or the clash at Twickenham during the World Cup but as far as the coaches go this weekend’s match-up is the next best thing.
And what is the alternative?
The day after the Premiership final is traditionally, recently, the day when an England XV take on the Barbarians before they head off to get whipped somewhere in the southern hemisphere and the England XV normally bears no relation to a first, or second, choice line-up. No caps are awarded for that one, there is a bit of and end-of-term feel about it and the opposition have, more than likely, done things the ‘Barbarian Way’ in the lead-up.
In 2015, just 34,467 people were rattling around Twickenham to see a Danny Cipriani-inspired England side beat the invitational team 73-12. It wasn’t competitive, told then-coach Stuart Lancaster very little he didn’t know already and only three of the match-day 23 played any part in England’s World Cup campaign. If you can name them, you should probably get out more, but the game was utterly irrelevant and a waste of just about everyone’s time. For the record, the three were Henry Slade, Kieran Brookes and Joe Launchbury.
Replacing that anachronism with a match against Wales is the sensible thing to do. It doesn’t get said very often, but a dose of common sense has swept about Twickenham, the clubs, and the RFU, will get a few quid out of it for good measure and it should be a proper Test match.
Jones has been doing his best to boost ticket sales by promoting Wales, who have most of their big guns available, as odds-on to win the match.
“We get to play Wales again and have the chance to beat them again,” he said. “There is nothing better than that. They have got an enormous amount of pressure on them. They go into the game as red-hot favourites, so they’re going to have to cope with that pressure.”
England have played Wales 128 times since 1881, have won 59 of those matches, lost 57 of them and drawn 12 and most of them have meant something. This one will mean something too.