Referee: Steve Walsh
Having made the necessary changes to the XV following the Italy defeat, this England side feels even fresher than the one that started the Six Nations. But the changes are all in areas where a rejuvenation was sorely needed; number eight for Ben Morgan’s power from the base, Lee Dickson’s tempo at scrum-half, the X-Factor of Manu Tuilagi in the midfield. There is pressure on Owen Farrell to perform, because now England are only operating with one kicker, their passing game will have to step up.
Wales head to Twickenham with the unfamiliar tag of favourites looming large but this it’s more than justified after excellent wins over Ireland and Scotland. Though they may lie level on points with England the gap in performance level has been large. Captain Sam Warburton and lock Alun Wyn Jones, who will earn his 60th cap, both return from injury and hooker Ken Owens makes his first start after Huw Bennett was forced out. The Welsh back-line, who have scored all of their side’s six tries, remain unchanged after George North recovered from the ankle injury that saw him leave the field prematurely against Scotland.
What to Expect:
If England were planning to play this game purely for the result, they would have gone with two kickers at 10 and 12, and attacked Wales at their weakest area, the lineout. Yet by picking Barritt & Tuilagi, England have aimed, *gulp*, to go through the middle. Tackles have to be decisive, allowing no offloads or half breaks, if England’s defence is to remain unbreached. In attack, Geoff Parling has come into the lineout to create that quick ball off the top England have missed.
Warren Gatland’s men have exuded quality at times so far. Rhys Priestland has regularly brought the best from of his outside backs but the Scotland game saw the Scarlets fly-half kick far more than previous. Such is the talent of England’s back three though, and the prowess of full-back Ben Foden under the high ball, it is unlikely Priestland will be as forthcoming with the boot, instead preferring to test England’s as yet fairly solid defence with strong runners. Wales may not run through this solid English wall, but the sheer presence of such dangerous runners may do enough to open some holes.
All Eyes On: Ben Morgan & Alun Wyn Jones
To win a first start against the country where you ply your trade must feel very special, and bizarre at the same time for young Ben Morgan. But, he is into the side on performances and performances alone, due to that fact that he has only had about half an hour on the pitch in a white shirt to lay down his marker. Yet his selection seems so obvious because of the way he has played in those two cameos; aggressive, barging his way through tacklers and getting past that mythical English target, the gain line.
Ryan Jones could count himself somewhat unlucky to be the one to make way for his fellow Osprey, but the Alun Wyn Jones’ past form and line-out prowess guaranteed an immediate recall and means he’ll be an integral figure for Wales on Saturday. Without him, Wales have faced big problems in the set piece and, with hooker Ken Owens making his first start for Wales, Jones will need to be at his athletic best to ensure line-out problems don’t undermine his side.
Head to Head: Manu Tuilagi vs Jon Davies
It’s a good job Manu Tuilagi doesn’t feel pressure, such was the demand to see him re-instated to the England setup. With a powerful fend and raw acceleration from only a couple of paces, England have missed what the 20 year old brings to the party (on the pitch, not off it). What matters on Saturday is giving him enough clean possession and space to work, because he will beat the first tackler if not once, the many more times.
Jon Davies has enjoyed a quick progression in international rugby and his centre partnership with Jamie Roberts is proving one of the most formidable around. The Scarlets centre’s main asset is his power but a good turn of pace ensures he always makes the most of Roberts’ piercing breaks. Davies has lined up against Tuilagi before and will be acutely aware of the task he faces, but he may be quietly hoping he can take advantage of the Leicester player’s lack of game time.
England’s changes have been positive, but fact outweighs optimism and so far England have been dismal going forward, and lucky not to be punished defensively despite impressive tacking figures. Twickenham will help undoubtedly, but to have new players in at 8, 9 and 10 for their first starts means that as Stuart Barnes said last night, a win would be “stunning”. Wales by 6. BC
This could be a game too far for England. Battling to victories over Scotland and Italy is admirable, but beating a rampant Welsh side could prove to be a different prospect. Wales by 5. TJ
by Ben Coles & Tom James
To spice up the competition a little bit more, here is the final video from SSE featuring Tom Croft & Ryan Jones, with the Englishman 17-16 ahead on points…