The 2020 Six Nations will be remembered for the gloom and disruption caused by the coronavirus. But England and Wales have a chance to lift the spirits this Saturday
Six Nations England v Wales preview
These are strange times in the weirdest of seasons. On top of cancelled World Cup matches and the Saracens salary cap scandal comes Guinness Six Nations upheaval.
This Saturday’s Anglo-Welsh clash was supposed to be the middle of the three round-four fixtures. Instead, the panic caused by coronavirus saw Ireland v Italy postponed and uncertainty linger. So much so that Mako Vunipola, back from a trip to Tonga in which he passed through Hong Kong, has been omitted by England for precautionary reasons whilst being allowed to train and play for Saracens.
A further blow followed today with news that England’s match in Rome next weekend has also been postponed, along with the women’s and U20 fixtures, as Italy tries desperately to contain the impact of a virulent new virus. Read about that story here.
Amidst the disturbing and ever-changing picture, it’s comforting to turn our thoughts to an age-old rugby rivalry.
The nuts and bolts are that England could go top of the table with a win on Saturday, raising the heat on leaders France ahead of their Sunday date with Scotland. Victory would also give England a fifth Triple Crown of the Six Nations era, drawing them level with Ireland.
Wales are hoping to avert a third successive defeat for the first time since 2016, and a first time in the championship since a five-match losing streak in 2006-07. Victory would banish the negativity of their losses to Ireland and France in a trice. It would also reduce the title race to a France-Ireland shootout, scheduled to meet the following weekend in Paris.
Already, this is the first Six Nations tournament to suffer a postponement since 2001, when the foot-and-mouth outbreak caused games to be delayed until the autumn. Not since 1974, the time of the Troubles in Ireland, has a championship gone uncompleted. With the rugby calendar so congested nowadays, the odds must be that the 2020 version will follow suit, particularly if France win their remaining two games to close out the title.
England are rightly favourites on Saturday, with Wales inevitably taking time to bed in both a more expansive attacking game and a new defensive system under new management.
Yet don’t believe those pundits from the Principality warning of a rush of English tries! Eddie Jones is missing two of his most powerful carriers in the Vunipola brothers and Wales have the personnel to meet fire with fire.
Two years ago, Wales made a poor start yet only lost 12-6 in a match that contained a dubious TMO decision that might have swung the game the way of the visitors.
The morning of the game will see a sing-off fronted by rugby legends Jason Robinson and Gareth Thomas. Hosted by singer Laura Wright, it takes place at iconic rugby pub The Cabbage Patch, across the road from Twickenham station.
The RFU will celebrate hitting the 750 target they set for the All Schools programme that launched in 2012. Lealands High School, Luton became the 750th school to join the initiative and they will be represented at the game when 75 students take part in on-pitch activities.
What’s the big team news?
England welcome back two players who last played for them in the World Cup final in November. Anthony Watson has recovered from the calf injury that forced him to miss the first three rounds and replaces Bath team-mate Jonathan Joseph on the wing.
And a training injury to Sam Underhill means Mark Wilson comes in for his first start since the World Cup warm-up against Italy last September.
Wales have made four changes from the side beaten by France last time out.
Liam Williams (ankle) and Josh Navidi (hamstring) return from injury to make their first Test appearances of the year. Rob Evans replaces Wyn Jones at loosehead while Tomos Williams regains the No 9 shirt from Gareth Davies, with Rhys Webb on the bench.
There is positive news on recent injury casualties. Dan Biggar has made a speedy recovery from the knee injury incurred last weekend against Saracens while George North, who suffered a heavy knock against France, is also fit to start. The wing has completed the concussion protocols and has been in full training. Wales’ best wing, Josh Adams, is out of the championship following his ankle injury against France.
Taulupe Faletau, pretty much undroppable ever since he burst on the international scene in 2011, must settle for a replacement’s role this time.
Related content: Want to stay active during the championship? Here’s a list of Six Nations Parkruns – 5km in length and totally free – that are held weekly close to the host stadiums.
What have the coaches said?
England head coach Eddie Jones: “We’ve had a really good two-week preparation – a fallow week in Oxford, where we had good training days last Thursday and Friday, and three good training days this week culminating in a very good session on Wednesday.
“Wales are a very tough, well-coached side and they’ve been building on their attack since Wayne Pivac has taken over. It’s always a tough game against Wales and we know they will bring that toughness to all the contest areas.
“They’ve lost their last two games and are going to come hard at us. They will want to make a statement. They beat us last year so we owe them one.”
England forwards coach Matt Proudfoot on facing Wales: “When I was involved in the Springbok environment, we tried to do it three different ways. Eventually we said we’ve just got to get involved in the challenge. That’s probably why that game (RWC 2019 semi-final) was of that nature, it was just a slug-fest.
“You really have to confront them on that line, where they make it tough. You can’t get around them, you can’t get over them, you’ve got to go at them. It’s going to be a tough challenge on Saturday.”
Wales head coach Wayne Pivac: “We’ve had a good two weeks and we are really excited about heading up to Twickenham. We’ve had the chance to put the disappointments of the loss to France behind us and we know heading to London we need to be more clinical in attack and convert the opportunities that we are creating.
“Liam’s return to full fitness is a positive after the loss of Josh (Adams), as is the return of Josh Navidi. We have been targeting this game for both of their returns and they have trained really well, so it’s a great opportunity for them on Saturday.”
On the dropping of Faletau: “He started on Sunday for Bath, hasn’t trained until today fully, so it’s counted against him. He took a bump in that game. It’s just one of the downsides of guys playing outside Wales, having to play on the Sunday before a Test match.
“We think it’s better for him to come off the bench and have a smaller part in the game.”
Any interesting statistics?
* England lead Wales 13-7 in the Six Nations head-to-head (since 2000). They have lost just two of their previous 24 home championship matches
* Wales average 9.7 visits to the opposition 22 per match in 2020 – the highest figure in the competition. Eddie Jones’s men are averaging eight visits
* England have the edge in physicality statistically – 13.5% of their tackles to date have registered as dominant compared to 8.3% for the Welsh
* Second-row Maro Itoje tops the tournament’s ‘dominant tackles’ chart with 14
* Alun Wyn Jones will play his 147th Test – just one shy of Richie McCaw’s all-time record
* The Welsh captain will also be making his 57th championship appearance – an outright national record. He is currently tied with Gethin Jenkins on 56
* England have stolen 14 lineouts in the championship – twice as many as any other nation. Wales are bottom of that category, with two steals
* Wales have conceded the fewest penalties (22) in this year’s tournament. And they are the only team yet to be penalised for offside
* George North has scored 20 championship tries – only two behind the Welsh record held by wing Shane Williams
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
England v Wales, Saturday 7 March, Twickenham
The match kicks off at 4.45pm and will be broadcast live on ITV1 and S4C, plus BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales & Radio Cymru and the BBC sport website.
New Zealand’s Ben O’Keeffe takes the whistle for this one. He will be assisted by Frenchmen Romain Poite and Alex Ruiz. South Africa’s Marius Jonker, one of the poorer Television Match Officials, is the man in the truck.
What are the line-ups?
England Elliot Daly; Anthony Watson, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (capt), Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Charlie Ewels, 21 Ben Earl, 22 Willi Heinz, 23 Henry Slade.
Wales Leigh Halfpenny; George North, Nick Tompkins, Hadleigh Parkes, Liam Williams; Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi.
Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Leon Brown, 19 Aaron Shingler, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Jarrod Evans, 23 Johnny McNicholl.
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