Six Nations England v Wales Preview
The relative ease of England’s 46-15 Six Nations victory in Rome last weekend was expected, Wales’ 34-7 saunter against the Scots far less so. This will be a clash to savour and if England are justly favourites, then they know their proud record of never having lost at Twickenham under Eddie Jones is squarely on the line.
With half a team unavailable to Wales because of injury, they field ten of the Scarlets side that has thrilled Pro14 and Champions Cup crowds over the past 18 months. It brings to mind Warren Gatland’s very first match as Wales boss in 2008, when he selected 13 Ospreys and toppled England on the way to a Grand Slam.
A decade on, he goes in search of his fourth Welsh win at Twickenham and success this time would be the best of them all.
The key battle areas
Scotland’s attempts to get to the wide channels against Wales failed miserably, with Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes reading the plays and shutting them down at source.
Finn Russell drives much of Scotland’s attack but at Twickenham Wales will face a double threat in the shape of George Ford and Owen Farrell, whose understanding as a 10-12 axis is second to none in international rugby.
Similarly, if stopping Stuart Hogg is difficult, try handling the pace of Anthony Watson, Jonny May and the recalled Jonathan Joseph. Wales will need to ensure there is no quick ball for England to work off. They will have their work cut out because the likes of Mako Vunipola, Courtney Lawes and Sam Simmonds provide the ball-carrying options that we didn’t really see from the Scots.
Last year Wales made clever use of the two-man choke tackle and they came close to pulling off a win, Elliot Daly’s late try proving decisive in Cardiff.
Of course Wales, too, have shots to fire. Their attack stats last weekend were exceptional, with 18 clean breaks, 13 offloads and 561 metres gained despite almost equal possession.
Their vision of pure 15-man rugby, with continuous use of ball-handling tight forwards, is being gloriously applied. Against the Scots, Cory Hill, Rob Evans and Alun Wyn Jones combined in one move to almost put Steff Evans over; Hill’s pass helped put Leigh Halfpenny in for his first try; Alun Wyn Jones gave a ‘scoring’ pass to Gareth Anscombe that the fly-half dropped; prop Wyn Jones was deprived of a try by the TMO; and we saw delicious tip passes by Alun Wyn Jones and Samson Lee in the same move.
Furthermore, back-rows Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi were link men in the bonus-point try by Steff Evans. All in all, it was highly impressive and, with England showing glimpses of great inter-play late on against Italy, this weekend’s game is one to entice.
Danny Care will win his 78th cap, becoming the stand-alone most capped England scrum-half ahead of Matt Dawson. Care has won 43 of those caps off the bench and he starts this time only because of the knee ligament injury that has ruled Ben Youngs out of the rest of the tournament.
Care is a terrific deputy and enjoys a high tempo. It will be interesting to see how things change when Richard Wigglesworth joins the fray after an hour or so, for his first cap since RWC 2015, as the Saracen is far more suited to a structured kicking game.
Saturday will be ten years to the day since Wigglesworth made his Test debut, as a replacement in Rome; in contrast, back-row Simmonds is only three months into an England career that saw him touch the heights in Italy, with 23 tackles, 14 carries, 80 metres gained, two tries and one assist.
Simmonds will be well aware of the welcoming committee, comprising Shingler, Navidi and Ross Moriarty, that awaits him but what a fantastically thunderous challenge. He will hope to prove that he’s able to mix it in more physical company whilst losing none of that running threat that his blistering acceleration brings – he does speed work with the backs.
Eddie Jones has grabbed the headlines for singling out Wales fly-half Rhys Patchell as a potential weakness. Last Saturday was Patchell’s first Test start at fly-half, after two starts at full-back and a further three caps as a replacement, and the England coach has ramped up the pressure on the 24-year-old.
“He’s a young guy, he’s inexperienced and is their third-choice ten. He will have to find guys around him to help because he’ll be under some heat. I’d imagine that when Alun Wyn Jones and the guys go down for breakfast on Saturday morning, they’ll be looking at him thinking, ‘Can this guy handle the pressure today?’ It’s a big ask. I hope he has the bottle on Saturday.”
It’s a classic Jones tactic but such shenanigans can backfire; in 2011, Warren Gatland publicly questioned Dylan Hartley‘s character and temperament ahead of the Anglo-Welsh clash in Cardiff and the Saints hooker produced an assured performance as England won 26-19.
Wales have laughed off Jones’s comments, believing that the presence of so many Scarlets team-mates around Patchell will stand him in good stead. One of them, scrum-half Gareth Davies, scored the match-turning try when Wales last triumphed at Twickenham, 28-25 at the 2015 World Cup. And the Englishman trying to make a desperate try-saving tackle? Richard Wigglesworth.
Team changes have been kept to a minimum. The visitors field the same XV as the one that hammered Scotland but George North is on the bench, replacing Ospreys centre Owen Watkin. There’s no place for Liam Williams, who is back training after an abdominal injury and has been released back to Saracens.
As well as Care’s promotion off the bench, England have opted for Joseph’s greater cutting edge at outside-centre, with Ben Te’o demoted to a ‘finisher’ role on the bench.
The QBE Rugby Predictor, which has been developed by actuaries at QBE Business Insurance and uses a complex mathematical formula, is forecasting a 29-18 win for England – which was the result at Twickenham in 2014. They also predict Ireland to beat Italy 41-12 and Scotland to beat France 24-17.
What time does England v Wales kick off?
England v Wales, Saturday 10 February, 4.45pm, Twickenham
England Mike Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), J May (Leicester); G Ford (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), M Itoje (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins), S Simmonds (Exeter).
Replacements 16 J George (Saracens), 17 A Hepburn (Exeter), 18 H Williams (Exeter), 19 G Kruis (Saracens), 20 S Underhill (Bath), 21 R Wigglesworth (Saracens), 22 B Te’o (Worcester), 23 J Nowell (Exeter).
Wales Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets); Josh Adams (Worcester), S Williams (Scarlets), H Parkes (Scarlets), S Evans (Scarlets); R Patchell (Scarlets), G Davies (Scarlets); R Evans (Scarlets), K Owens (Scarlets), S Lee (Scarlets), C Hill (Dragons), AW Jones (Ospreys, capt), A Shingler (Scarlets), J Navidi (Cardiff Blues), R Moriarty (Gloucester).
Replacements E Dee (Dragons), W Jones (Scarlets), T Francis (Exeter), B Davies (Ospreys), J Tipuric (Ospreys), A Davies (Scarlets), G Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), G North (Northampton).
Pau-born Jérôme Garcès, 44, has been refereeing for 25 years and is not a man to shirk big decisions – he sent off All Black Sonny Bill Williams in last year’s second Test against the Lions.
The TV Details
The game is live on ITV and S4C. Click the link for all the TV details for the rest of the tournament.