Preview: Wales v England
SIX NATIONS ROUND THREE: Wales and England will both put their Grand Slam ambitions on the line when they meet for a sold-out Six Nations clash at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium on Saturday.
Both sides, the only unbeaten teams in the tournament, have won their opening two matches of this Six Nations.
Yet for Wales, whatever England’s form, the fixture has long been a chance to gain a measure of revenge for all the many political, cultural and economic wrongs they feel have been done to them by their border rivals.
It was a sentiment summed up in a speech by Wales captain Phil Bennett shortly before the 1977 edition in Cardiff where the outstanding fly-half concluded by telling his side: “We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.”
Wales won that match 14-9.
This week the Welsh squad have watched a play about the life of the fiercely patriotic Wales centre Ray Gravell, a team-mate of Bennett’s.
What effect it had on a side where wing George North and centre Jonathan Davies were born in England, while fellow backs Gareth Anscombe and Hadleigh Parkes hail from New Zealand – as does coach Warren Gatland – remains to be seen.
But Eddie Jones, an Australian in charge of an England team featuring Samoa-born centre Manu Tuilagi and the Sydney-born but Wales-raised son of a former Tonga captain in No 8 Billy Vunipola, had no doubt about Wales’ mood.
“They (Wales) have been saying they’re ready to rip off heads.
“They watched a play about Ray Gravell – I remember watching him play – a really good player.
“So they’re full of emotions and they’ll bring that to the field and we know Wales teams at home want to come out hard.”
But former Australia and Japan coach Jones, however, was confident in how England would approach the game.
“Just be calm but at the same time tough and have a real steel about us. That’s what I want to see.
“And I know we’re going to get it, I can see it in the players’ eyes now.”
Wales are on an 11-match unbeaten run, with just one more win required to break their all-time record set from 1907-1910.
Jones, however, has won all four of his matches against Wales since taking over as England coach after the 2015 World Cup.
Wing Jack Nowell and prop Ben Moon replace the injured Chris Ashton and prop Mako Vunipola respectively in the only two changes to England starting side that thrashed France 44-8 last time out.
England have scored tries inside the first three minutes of their last five Tests, with wing Jonny May grabbing 12 in his last 12 internationals.
But Wales led again by veteran second row Alun Wyn Jones, will back their defence to put more pressure on England captan and flyhalf Owen Farrell, who led a brilliant tactical kicking display that repeatedly caused problems for a callow France side at Twickenham.
“It’s a massive challenge playing against an England team that is playing really well and with a lot of confidence and we’ve got to make it difficult for them,” said Gatland, in his final Six Nations campaign as Wales coach before he stands down after this year’s World Cup in Japan.
Never reluctant to make big decisions, Gatland has opted for Anscombe over the benched Dan Biggar at flyhalf.
Anscombe, the son of a Cardiff-born mother, is seen as the more attacking player, while Biggar, passed fit despite going off early with a heavily strapped leg for English club Northampton last weekend, is viewed as the superior defensive stand-off and goalkicker.
But if Anscombe, who once said he felt “crucified” by Wales fans unhappy at his quick promotion to Test rugby following his arrival from New Zealand, guides Wales to victory on Saturday he can expect hero status.
Players to watch:
For Wales: The biggest name missing in the starting line-up is that Dan Biggar. Instead, Gareth Anscombe (RPI 83) will don the No.10 jersey, a move that could cost them. Anscombe produced a below-par performance in Round one, however, he has the chance to prove himself which will be intriguing to watch. Liam Williams (RPI 90), probably one of the best players in Wales starting XV. In the pack, captain Alun Wyn Jones‘ (RPI 85) return boosts the side – his experience is certainly valuable.
For England: In the backline, Exeter Chiefs wing Jack Nowell (RPI 88) is the man to watch in the absence of injured Chris Ashton. While Nowell’s fellow wing Jonny May (RPI 80) just can’t stop scoring – a very lethal weapon when it comes to attack. In the pack, Tom Curry (RPI 74) and Billy Vunipola (RPI 83) are extremely effective with their prominent carries and strong defence. While Kyle Sinckler (RPI 77) is another influential figure for Eddie Jones’ side.
Head to head: Certainly the individual battle between Wales’ flyhalf Gareth Anscombe and England’s Owen Farrell is one to watch – money will probably be on Farrell to win this altercation. Anscombe had a stinker with the boot in Paris in the opening round but as the RPI highlights, he is usually reliable from the tee. His goal success rating of 91 is just one shy of Farrell. The England playmaker is one of the best flyhalves in the world and arguably the most important player in Jones’ side. That is showcased by his influence rating, 88, which is 10 more than his opposite number on Saturday. Back three versus Back three – Williams, North and Adams against Elliot Daly, Nowell and May will definitely be an intriguing match-up. In the midfield, Jonathan Davies and Hadleigh Parkes will have to be world class against England’s Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi. The England duo have been impressive with Slade illustrating his attacking prowess and Tuilagi creating try-scoring opportunities with formidable linebreaks during the season. Front row versus Front row – Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, and Rob Evans against Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, and Ben Moon. While the line-outs, also a noteworthy showcase, Wales have the figure of Alun Wyn Jones, paired with Cory Hill going up against George Kruis, and Courtney Lawes. The Welsh lineout has not functioned well in the Championship so far and that is an area England will look to put the pressure on. However with England missing Maro Itoje and Wales having captain Alun Wyn Jones in the team it might be a different story on Saturday.
2018: England won 12-6, London
2017: England won 21-16, Cardiff
2016: England won 27-13, London
2016: England won 25-21, London
2015: Wales won 28-25, London (World Cup pool match)
2015: England won 21-16, Cardiff
2014: England won 29-18, London
2013: Wales won 30-3, Cardiff
2012: Wales 19-12, London
2011: Wales won 19-9, Cardiff
2011: England won 23-19, London
Prediction: Definitely a tough one to call. Both teams head into the encounter unbeaten. Wales have had the easier path securing wins over France and Italy, while England had to deal with Ireland and France, respectively. Nonetheless, it would be silly just to write off Wales. But with England’s current form it will be impractical to go against Eddie’s side – an England win by five points.
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 Josh Navidi, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 4 Cory Hill, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans.
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: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell (captain), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Mark Wilson, 5 George Kruis, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ben Moon.
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.
Date: Saturday, February 23
Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 16.45 (14.45 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Alexandre Ruiz (France)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)