Date: Friday 4th February
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Scratch beneath the surface of all rhetoric in the build up to Friday’s first (and hopefully last) Anglo-Welsh tie to be played on a Friday night, and you find two teams who are at a cross roads. England unable to put two back-to-back performances together and Wales unable to produce a consistent performance over the course of a single eighty minutes. Whilst visits by the red rose to Cardiff will always produce a fierce encounter, this year’s clash has the potential to be pivotal in shaping the direction of either team under their current coaching regimes.
Rightly or wrongly for most Welsh rugby supporters this is the seminal match in the rugby calendar. This combined with a terrible period of form over the last eighteen months has heaped the pressure on Warren Gatland. So much so the New Zealander resorted to sledging Dylan Hartley in an effort to deflect the spotlight off a Wales team who have only won two of their last twelve matches, and whose last notable scalp came in the autumn of 2008. A lack of form and injury have dictated that Wales turn to a string of newcomers, a precarious position to be in some nine months out from the World Cup. However the men in red will take heart from from an unbeaten home record against their English counterparts that stretches back to 2005, and the knowledge that they could, and perhaps should have won at Twickenham last year.
While the halcyon days of the early noughties under Clive Woodward may seem a long time ago, there is a sense that England are at last, however slowly, heading back in that direction under Martin Johnson. Defeat to the Springboks put a dampener on what looked like being an autumn of genuine progress. Along with the French, they possess a pool of talent to pick from that is the envy all other nations but that talent has been poorly managed, both in terms of style of play and selection. However, the last year has seen them on an upward curve, including two victories over the Wallabies, with a number of new faces injecting real vibrancy into a team labelled by many as being overly dependent on grunt, rather than imagination.
What to expect:
Both sides have named physical centre pairings so it would be safe to forecast a very heavy collision zone. England will seek to exploit the absence of Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins in the Welsh front row, while the home side themselves will hope to target an English pack lacking the likes of Tom Croft, Lewis Moody, Courtney Lawes.
All eyes on:
Having disgraced himself off the pitch last year, Andy Powell has begun to claw back some of the credibility he lost. Some big performances for his club side Wasps in the Aviva Premiership have raised hopes that he could be the big ball carrying number eight Wales are crying out for.
Rather predictably Dylan Hartley is the one to watch for England. The New Zealand-born hooker has an uncanny knack for winding up opponents and Friday night will be a massive test for the 24-year-old’s temperament.
Head to head: James Hook v Ben Foden
Two players of real calibre, but of contrasting styles, Hook’s move to full back is a conservative selection, while Foden represents a real attacking weapon from the back. If the Welsh number fifteen fails to kick with enough accuracy his English opposite number is almost certain have a field day.
Last year’s result: 6th February 2010 – England 30 Wales 17
Much has been made of the Cardiff factor in the build up to Friday’s game. As notorious slow Championship starters, Wales will have to use it to full effect if they are to come out on top. Injuries to key personnel for England have definitely worked in the home sides’ favour, but I think think the visitors will just have a bit too much muscle up front and pace behind it. England by 5.
By Paul French