Preview: England v Wales
The match between England and Wales on Sunday is the most significant of the weekend.
Each side has played three, won two and lost one – the same essential results as those of Ireland and France. So four teams each have four points. But the match between England and Wales could well be the one that eliminates – reduces four contenders to three.
Wales win and they could hang onto their title. Could – with a home match against Scotland to follow. If England win they could take the title as they are off to Rome the week afterwards. But on that last day there is another eliminator – France versus Ireland in Paris.
It's a big match, especially between two sides with a history of animosity.
Though it's not far from Cardiff to London, the two countries are in so many ways poles apart and there was a time when Wales approached Twickenham with awe and were sometimes given pep talks telling them not to be intimidated. That has changed now that players play all over the place and the England side has a more egalitarian look, funny haircuts replacing camelhair coats.
Both teams have a settled look. The only changes the Welsh have made are to welcome back Jonathan Davies and Alun Wyn Jones from injury, in theory strengthening the side that hammered the French. England have lost bustling Billy Vunipola but then Tom Johnson is back in the squad with bustling Ben Morgan no slouch at No.8. England may rue the absence of solid, street-wise Dan Cole.
Home ground is an obvious factor, but apart from that the two teams look evenly matched. There does not seem much between the packs – two well-balanced sets of loose forwards and two strong sets of tight forwards, though perhaps Wales have the edge here, for Cole's absence may well be felt, not just at scrum time.
At halfback England have an edge in energy, enterprise and personality but outside of that Wales look to have greater thrust. Not that this championship's try-scoring would confirm that. England have scored five tries, Wales four. Both sides have conceded four tries. It's obviously not all about tries in the Six Nations.
Wales with Leigh Halfpenny have a better kicking record than England with Owen Farrell. England has kicked five penalty goals and missed four. Wales have kicked nine penalty goals and missed two.
Both sides have roughly the same penalty counts as their opponents but Wales have conceded 35 to England's 29. But then 16 of Wales's penalties was in the debacle in Dublin. Still England may well be better off at Twickenham than Wales will be – by the practical nature of the game.
Card sanctions also affect teams. England have had no sanctionary cards, Wales two – for Gethin Jenkins and for Mike Phillips.
The two teams have played each other 124 times since 1881 and have each won 56 times with 12 drawn matches. Winning for both sides has been better at home than away, as one would expect. England have won 35 times away from home, Wales 20 times.
They have been playing at Twickenham since 1910, 48 times in all. England have won 28 times, Wales 13 times and seven matches were drawn. This century Wales have won at Twickenham in 2008 and 2012 in eight matches.
In this season's Six Nations, England have beaten Ireland at home, Scotland away, and lost to France in Paris even though they had the better of the French.
Wales beat Italy in a ropey match in Cardiff, were smashed by Ireland in Dublin and gave France a hiding in Cardiff.
Past results may not be really significant.
Players to Watch:
For England: The most obvious is Mike Brown, who has had a wonderful tournament on defence but above all on attack. He is just so hard to contain. Jonny May is an interesting wing, also a difficult man to contain, one happiest attacking. You always see scrumhalves and lively Danny Care is more visible than most.
For Wales: There are Leigh Halfpenny, certainly not just a kicker, a short man with a keen eye for counterattacking opportunities, both of their strong wings Alex Cuthbert and George North and both their centres – direct Jamie Roberts and opportunistic Jonathan Davies, such an excellent pairing. In the Welsh pack there is tough Taulupe Faletau.
Head to Head: Captain versus Captain, Leader versus Leader, Champion versus Champion – the ancient way of settling disputes. This contest may well not decide the outcome of the battle but they are certainly the accepted leaders, men who do the unglamorous tasks in the service of their teams – tackling, grovelling for the ball, quietly encouraging – Chris Robshaw of England and Sam Warburton of Wales. Halfbacks versus Halfbacks – Owen Farrell and Danny Care versus Rhys Priestland and Rhys Webb with the England pair expected to fare better, but faring better often depends on the big men in front of you, not that the Welsh pack is so likely to dominate as to make a massive difference. Fullback versus Fullback – Mike Brown versus Leigh Halfpenny, two of the very best players in their position in the world. Brown may well have the cutting edge but Halfpenny's skills could just count for more. Wing Jonny May against wing Alex Cuthbert, both Old Boys of Hartpury College. Front rows versus front row. Will Joe Marler cope with Adam Jones, and not just in the hair stakes? There could be a great duel between energetic Richard Hibbard and tough man Dylan Hartley. Will Gethin Jenkins benefit from the absence of Dan Cole? There will be a battle in the line-outs – Alun Wyn Jones versus poacher Courtney Lawes, where the teams both have similar records this season In fact in both teams there are individual contests of grievous importance.
2013: Wales won 30-3, Cardiff
2012: Wales won 19-12, London
2011: Wales won 19-9, Cardiff
2011: England won 23-19, London
2011: England won 26-19, Cardiff
2010: England won 30-17, London
2009: Wales won 23-15, Cardiff
2008: Wales won 26-19, London
2007: England won 62-5, London
2007: Wales won 18-27, Cardiff
Prediction: Taking home ground advantage into account, we predict that England will win by 10 points or more. It could just be a great game.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Danny Care, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (captain), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Tom Johnson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 George Ford, 23 Alex.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (captain), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Andrew Coombs, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Liam Williams.
Date: Sunday, 9 March 2014
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 15.00 (GMT)
Expected weather: A really good afternoon for rugby – sunny with a high of 17°C, dropping to 5°C
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Steve Walsh (Australia), Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
By Paul Dobson