Six Nations Wales v England Preview
It doesn’t pay to get ahead of yourself but for England the prize is tantalizingly clear. Victory at the Principality Stadium this weekend will leave Eddie Jones’s men requiring home wins against Italy and Scotland to achieve only a third English Six Nations Grand Slam in the professional era, after 2003 and 2016.
Given England have never lost to Italy, and last lost to the Scots at Twickenham in the days of Margaret Thatcher and the launch of breakfast TV, the duel in Cardiff could hardly be bigger.
Nor more evenly poised. Both teams have won their opening two fixtures and if the Welsh performances in Paris and Rome have provided fuel for the cynics, there is nothing like a clash with the English to summon the hwyl.
Warren Gatland’s selection carve-up against Italy, and arguably the Nice training camp that preceded it, compromised Wales’ efforts as they sought to replicate the challenges that may await in this year’s World Cup.
Now it’s back to the real stuff and a meeting with an England team that has won 21-16 on each of its previous two visits to Cardiff but which contains five survivors from England’s heaviest-ever mauling by Wales – 30-3 in 2013.
A repeat score-line of that magnitude is unthinkable, not least because England’s line speed is looking a yard quicker and has been forcing opponents up a cul-de-sac occupied by their hard-hitting forwards.
England’s kicking game has been behind seven of their ten tries to date, but it’s inconceivable that Wales will defend as naively as Ireland and, particularly, France, who both picked as full-back a player unfamiliar with the position.
So England will have to work hard for points and Wales will gladly work hard to stop them. Where does the balance of power lie? Welsh pundits are happy to laud the men in white.
Speaking on last week’s Scrum V programme, Jonathan Davies said: “At the moment England are maybe the best side in the world. They’ve got three world-class players in every position and they destroyed Ireland at their own kind of game.”
Alongside him on the sofa, veteran journalist Peter Jackson called this “the best England team I’ve seen since the one that won the (2003) World Cup”.
Such flattery, and it will be easily dismissed by the England camp. As evidence of how tight this one could be, let’s turn to the QBE Supercomputer that simulates the tournament 10,000 times and makes data-based predictions.
Its verdict? A 20-19 win for Wales, to go with a 22-22 draw in Paris and a 49-11 Irish win in Rome. England are rated 73% to win the tournament but only 31% to do so with a Grand Slam.
This weekend’s match will be the first at the Principality Stadium with the new lower capacity of 73,931 (from 74,500). The reduction follows a 30% increase in disabled access, including the installation of 46 new wheelchair bays.
What’s the big team news?
After the mass changes against Italy, Wales revert almost to the same XV that began the tournament in Paris.
Cory Hill replaces Adam Beard at lock while Gareth Davies comes in at scrum-half for Tomos Williams – who is unavailable because of injury.
Those are the sole changes to the first-round XV and that means Gareth Anscombe is presently winning his selection battle with Dan Biggar at No 10, an issue that continues to create lively debate in the Principality.
Anscombe, at the heart of controversy last year when his ‘try’ at Twickenham was disallowed on review, is regarded as a better attacker but more prone to error. With Leigh Halfpenny still not quite ready to return following concussion issues, Anscombe is Wales’ only goalkicker in the starting XV.
England make only two changes from the side that thumped France 44-8 a fortnight ago. Jack Nowell, a round-one starter in Dublin, replaces Chris Ashton (calf strain) at right-wing while Ben Moon resumes loosehead duties from Mako Vunipola (ankle).
Vunipola’s absence, along with that of Maro Itoje, still recovering from a knee injury, means England won’t possess the same power as in their startling first-round win over the Irish.
Brad Shields and Joe Cokanasiga are included in the match-day 23 for the first time this tournament and both stand to make their Six Nations debut.
Remarkably, Courtney Lawes is the only starting forward who also started the win over Wales last year, and even he has changed position, from six to lock.
What have the coaches said?
England head coach Eddie Jones said: “England and Wales is always a big game. Intense rivals and there is the historical context to it, but for us it’s our most important game because it’s our next game and that is how we’re treating it.
“Whenever you play against a Warren Gatland side, you’re playing against a side that is going to be very physical on the gain-line. They are always very fit so you have to make sure you win the gain-line and then find opportunities of where you’re going to attack them.
“As you have read in the media, it’s all about Wales, we’re playing potentially the greatest team ever. Their players are full of emotion and it’s the biggest game they’re going to play in their lives. We’ve had a good week just focusing on ourselves and focusing on getting our preparation right.
“It’s disappointing to lose a player of the calibre of Mako Vunipola, but we have two very good players (Ben Moon and Ellis Genge) who will do a great job for us.
“As we saw in the autumn, Joe Cokanasiga is a player of great potential so we’re looking forward to him adding to the squad. Brad Shields comes in for Nathan Hughes as a finisher as we feel it’s going to be a high work-rate game.”
Any interesting statistics?
* Wales are going for a 12th successive Test win – which would be an outright national record. They’re currently matching the 11 straight wins they achieved from 1907 to 1911
* Wales’ only two defeats in their last 14 home championship matches were against England
* Jonny May hopes to score a try for a fifth consecutive Six Nations match. Should he do so, the England wing will match the feat of Philippe Bernat-Salles (2001), Shane Williams (2008-09) and George North (2016-17)
* England have scored a try within the first four minutes of eight of their past 14 Tests, May crossing for four of those eight tries. Their flying start includes a quick try in their past five Tests, against New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Ireland and France
* Alun Wyn Jones will break the Welsh record for the most championship matches against a single opponent. This will be his 13th Six Nations match against England, eclipsing a band of compatriots that includes Gareth Edwards, Gareth Llewellyn and Martyn Williams
* England have kicked from hand 79 times in this championship – more than any other team. That includes 47 kicks against France – the highest tally by a Tier One team since Opta started recording that data in 2010
* George North has scored 19 championship tries – only three behind the Welsh record held by Shane Williams
* Warren Gatland has yet to get the better of Eddie Jones in their Test head-to-head, Jones’s England winning all four contests – including an end-of-season match in 2016 – since the Australian joined the RFU
* Wales have the poorest lineout stats in the championship, losing seven of their 20 throws for a 65% success rate. The issue helps to explain Cory Hill’s recall
* Second-row Courtney Lawes will make his 50th start for England
* A victory will enable Wales to leapfrog England and go third in the World Rugby Rankings
What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
The match at the Principality Stadium kicks off at 4.45pm UK time on Saturday and is live on BBC One and S4C. There will also be live commentary on three BBC Radio channels – 5 live, Wales and Cymru – and online updates. TV highlights are on BBC2 on Sunday at 6pm.
The referee is South Africa’s Jaco Peyper, who last year sent off Wales back-row Ross Moriarty against Argentina for a chokehold and was criticised by Michael Cheika after the England-Australia match last autumn.
Peyper’s assistants in Cardiff will be Frenchmen Jerome Garces and Alexandre Ruiz, with TMO duties fulfilled by Ireland’s Simon McDowell.
What are the line-ups?
Wales: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Gareth Anscombe, Gareth Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Adam Beard, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin.
England: Elliot Daly: Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May; Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Ben Moon, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, George Kruis, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Dan Robson, 22 George Ford, 23 Joe Cokanasiga.