Preview: England v Wales
WORLD CUP WARM-UP: Excitement will be mixed with concern when four of Europe’s leading nations begin their Japan 2019 programme this weekend.
Ireland plays Italy in Dublin on Saturday, with England facing Wales at Twickenham a day later.
While some players can be reasonably certain of being on the plane to Japan, for others the next few weeks represent a last chance to impress.
Not that England has that long with their Australian coach Eddie Jones – brought in after the team’s first-round exit on home soil at the 2015 edition – naming his World Cup squad on Monday.
But John Mitchell, England’s assistant coach, said Friday: “I don’t see it as a one-off chance.
“Every day in our environment is selection and observation; it doesn’t just come down to one game.
“Every day we are looking at what they do, how they do it, how they adapt, how they cope with pressure, how they relax, how they connect.”
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Nevertheless, Mitchell, head coach of his native New Zealand when they reached the semifinals of the 2003 World Cup in Australia won by England, was well aware of what was at stake.
“It’s a difficult time for a head coach – you are making big decisions on young men’s careers,” he said.
“They all want to go to a World Cup.
“Having been in those shoes before, I can fully empathise with the feelings and emotions that he [Jones] goes through. But it is the head coach’s responsibility.”
England has picked an experimental side, leaving out several first-choice players and giving debuts to Bath wing Ruaridh McConnochie and Gloucester scrumhalf Willi Heinz.
Grand Slam champions Wales, however, have selected something close to their strongest side.
Mitchell, asked whether England’s priority on Sunday was to win or learn something about players that could only be discovered under match conditions, replied: “If you get both, that’s good.”
Sunday’s match will be the first of two back-to-back fixtures between England and Wales.
Both sides are playing four warm-ups in total, with Wales also involved in a double-header with Ireland.
Commercial considerations are clearly a factor, with unions looking to make-up for the loss of income they would otherwise suffer in a World Cup year without any November internationals
But such a programme has raised fears that, in an ever more brutal sport, players could suffer injuries that rule them out of the World Cup before the tournament starts.
This has happened before but Wales great JPR Williams – who away from rugby was a surgeon – has condemned the current schedule as “ridiculous”.
“Both England and Ireland can put two sides out on the park while we’ll have to risk some of our more senior players,” he told the Rugby Paper.
“It would be awful if we lost some of our best players on the eve of the World Cup.”
Wales could knock New Zealand off the top of the world rankings this weekend if they beat England and other results go their way.
But Wales coach Warren Gatland, who played in the same Waikato side as Mitchell, accepted Williams’s point.
“The criticism is fair,” he said.
“You can’t get it right all the time. You are trying to negotiate warm-up games with sides and trying to get the balance right.
“It’s a little bit of a concern that you don’t pick up too many injuries, but sometimes you have just got to roll the dice and go with it.”
Players to watch:
For England: Gloucester scrumhalf Willi Heinz is to make his England debut. Heinz, who featured in 58 matches for the Crusaders in Super Rugby and 52 for Canterbury in the National Provincial Championship of New Zealand, was named as vice-captain. Bath wing Ruaridh McConnochie is also set to win his first cap. Left wing Anthony Watson will be making his first appearance for England since damaging his Achilles at the end of the 2018 Six Nations. Sam Underhill and Tom Curry start in the same back row despite being specialist openside flanks, with Curry packing down at blindside flank.
For Wales: Alun Wyn Jones will become Wales’s most capped player of all time. The 33-year-old Welsh captain – last season’s Six Nations player of the tournament after captaining the Welsh to the Grand Slam – will be appearing in his 135th Test match. The second row forward played 126 Tests for Wales and nine for the British and Irish Lions. The pack certainly holds the key. Nicky Smith, Ken Owens and Tomas Francis are named in the front row, with Adam Beard partnering Jones in the second row. Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty comprise the back row.
Head to head
The most crucial battle will be at flyhalf – where George Ford (England) has slipped down the pecking order and faces Gareth Anscombe (Wales), whose stocks have risen dramatically this year. The midfield battle features two players with strong New Zealand links – Piers Francis born in Gravesend, England, but having played for Auckland, Waikato, Counties and the Blues, up against Hadleigh Parkes, who played well over 50 games for various Kiwi teams before moving to Wales in 2014.
2019: Wales won 21-13, Cardiff
2018: England won 12-6, London
2017: England won 21-16, Cardiff
2016: England won 27-13, London
2016: England won 25-21, London
Prediction: Given the experimental nature of the game it is difficult to make an accurate call. Based on the team selection, Wales look the more settled team and should edge the game – by five points.
England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Ruaridh McConnochie, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Anthony Watson, 10 George Ford (captain), 9 Willi Heinz, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Tom Curry, 5 Charlie Ewels, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ellis Genge.
Replacements: 17 Jack Singleton, 18 Joe Marler, 19 Harry Williams, 20 George Kruis, 21 Lewis Ludlam, 22 Ben Youngs, 23 Joe Marchant, Joe Cokanasiga.
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Aaron Wainwright, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Nicky Smith.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Wyn Jones, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Aaron Shingler, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin.
Date: Sunday, August 11
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 14.00 (13.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Partly sunny and breezy; with chances of showers or thunderstorm. High of 22°C and a low of 13°C
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant referees: Pascal Gaüzère (France), Alex Ruiz (France)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)