In a little over a week’s time, the eyes of the rugby world will be focused on the Northern Hemisphere as Super Saturday sees the Six Nations come to a head. A back-to-back trilogy of rugby is enough to get excited about no matter the situation, but one game has the potential to take on epic proportions: Wales v England. Cardiff will be crowing and, this weekend’s results allowing, the Championship, Triple Crown and Grand Slam could all be decided.
“It’s going to be massive, isn’t it?” says Wales hooker Matthew Rees – no stranger to this most passionate of rivalries – in the understatement of the century. “The games over the last couple of years between England and Wales have been close. Everyone’s talking about it.” If England can overcome Italy on Sunday, as they are largely expected to do, they will have to win in Cardiff to get the Grand Slam they covet.
Not that the Welsh needed more motivation to get one over their neighbours across the Severn, they can now add potentially depriving England of a Grand Slam to their list. Has that entered into their thoughts? “Of course, we’d love to spoil their party,” says Rees. “There’s also the Lions tour coming up, so people will be wanting to put their hand up for that.” You sense that getting themselves psyched up for this one will not be an issue.
Wales will be aware that if they can win well against Scotland this weekend, they stand a chance themselves of winning the championship. That would be the icing on the cake. Scotland, though, are playing better rugby than they have done for quite a while. It is somewhat surprising, then, that Wales have broken that old mantra of ‘never change a winning team’, especially after Howley stood so steadfastly behind those men who did a job in Paris. Rees is less shocked, however. “Alun Wyn (Jones)’s got a lot of experience, and obviously with Gethin (Jenkins) injured Paul James has come in and he’s got that experience too – he’s a tough old player. Sam Warburton’s come back in for Tipuric at seven and I think that’s to cover the threat of the Scotland back-row, who’ve been outstanding this championship.”
Warburton for Tipuric is one of the bigger selection calls, and Rees explains that is perhaps down to the nature of Scotland’s play. “Sam’s probably a bit more physical than Tips, and Scotland bring great physicality and we’ll have to match them – Sam’s a big part of that, which is probably why he’s been chosen this weekend.” It seems there may well be one eye on the week afterwards, too, a potentially dangerous strategy in a competition renowned for its unexpected nature. “We’re also looking forward to that game next weekend (England) and getting Alun some of the game time which he needs – that’s probably one of the biggest things.”
Coming into the tournament, Wales’ form couldn’t really have been poorer. After their opening round defeat to Ireland they hadn’t won for eight matches. Rees insists that the morale in the squad remained positive, however. “We sat down and looked at the game and obviously for one reason or another we weren’t there for the first half and full credit to the team that came back in the second half. We made a few back to back errors, and gave them too much territory and possession and they capitalized on that.
“Then we knew it was going to be tough with three games on the road after that, but one thing though in the team we have is that we stuck together and worked hard and got some big results which has given us lots of confidence for the Scotland game this weekend.”
Fortunately, through a combination of grit and graft, they bagged a win in France. Rees is keen to underline the importance of that victory in reinvigorating Wales. “It was massive. It could have gone either way really until George (North) scored the try, and we deservedly hung on to the end. I think we wanted it more, and that showed.”
Of course it is difficult to talk rugby these days without the giant elephant in the room, the Lions tour, coming up. Interestingly, some bookmakers have Rees as high as 125/1 to be tour captain. Not in the Wales squad this weekend, however, Rees is aware that plenty of hard work has to be done before even considering the Lions. “Right now I just want to try to get back in the team, and hopefully be a part of it next week, for what will be a massive game. There’s a lot of players (in the mix), especially with Chris Robshaw, then there’s Brian O’Driscoll as well and obviously Ryan (Jones) who’s doing a good job for Wales. Then there’s Sam (Warburton), and the influence he had in the world cup for Wales. It’s great to be mentioned, but personally I just need to try and get involved over the next few weeks.”
Lions tour or not, Rees will be plying his trade on pastures new when the season starts again in September, having agreed a move from the Scarlets to the Blues (of the Cardiff, not Auckland, vintage). “I think it’s the time in my career when I need a change and it’s giving me that, although I know it’s still playing in Wales,” he says. “I’ve been at the Scarlets for nine years now and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. I think I need a fresh start and a new challenge. I’m just looking forward to being a part of it next year.”
That can wait though. Next weekend in Cardiff, one of the fiercest rugby rivalries reignites. Never a boring game, this year promises more than ever. Grand Slam, Triple Crown, Lions Tour; ingredients all to be added to what is already a spicy encounter. It really will be unmissable.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Guinness is the Official Beer of the RBS 6 Nations and an Official Partner of the WRU. This weekend, enjoy a pint of the black stuff and soak up the match day atmosphere at your local Guinness Bar.