Nobody will admit as much in this exacting era of professional perfectionism, but there was a pretty plausible reason for the dire standard across last weekend that went ignored. Of course drizzle, incoherent officiating and dodgy backline decision-making contributed to a pair of poor matches at Murrayfield and Twickenham, but what loomed on the horizon must have derailed concentration too.
Now, this truly monstrous Anglo-Welsh clash has rolled into plain view. Stuart Lancaster’s intrepid cohort are on the verge of an immensely impressive Grand Slam, while Rob Howley can very conceivably steal the Six Nations championship for himself with a comprehensive win by at least seven points.
If Ireland spoiled the perfect scenario with their tournament-opening win at the Millienium Stadium, this situation is itself nigh on faultless. Cardiff should be poised for a tension-filled treat.
Reasons to back Wales
After Brian O’Driscoll wrecked any hope of a repeat clean-sweep in early February and consigned Wales to eight straight Test defeats, Howley has been forced to heal some severe wounds on the road. Things looked bleak, but between Paris and Edinburgh via Rome, a bloody-minded winning mentality has been re-located. Aside from sparse sparks – mostly from either George North or Dan Biggar – fluency has been tougher to find than triumph. Come Saturday’s Slam-busting mission in front of almighty home support, the latter is all that matters.
Although the entire contest promises to be spine-tingling and highly-charged, its grinding exchanges up front hold the key. A large portion of build-up will rightly centre on the tearaway tag team of Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton, but the man in the middle might be more important. Quietly consistent all competition, Toby Faletau offers something England are deprived of in Ben Morgan’s absence – a ball-carrier from the base of the scrum. Exceptional elsewhere, Tom Wood is not a natural number eight. With platform so pivotal, Wales have a big advantage.
Howley will not be losing too much sleep about anything outside of that. Against Italy on Sunday, England attacked like a side who have now scored a solitary try in three games and were devoid of accuracy or conviction. One glaring overlap-butcher in particular will have embarrassed the normally sharp Alex Goode. In contrast, Wales have not been breached since O’Driscoll shunted over a month ago. What is more, North, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny will not leave the pitch without probing the wider channels where Wesley Fofana, Sean Maitland and Luke McLean have made crippling inroads recently.
Reasons to back England
Lancaster’s most crucial selection call of his tenure so far went well yesterday. Typically pragmatic, the former schoolteacher from Leeds handed starts to Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell at half-back. Tight tussles call for territory and dead-eye precision from the tee, which these two have the shared kicking ability to provide. As game-managers, they are growing and – despite a combined age of just 44 – are sufficiently sanguine to secure away wins. Every bit of the tenaciousness on show at a sodden Aviva Stadium must re-surface, mind.
The sensational return of Tom Croft and Joe Launchbury’s fitness were two other boosts to emerge from Thursday’s press conference at Pennyhill. Ranging, rapid and abrasive, this duo better even the freakish athleticism of Ian Evans. They can cause havoc in the loose just as easily as they offer steadfast options in the lineout. Space will be at a premium early on, especially in a midfield crowded by Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi. However, if Croft and Launchbury latch onto off-loads, England can find another dimension.
With Howley evidently reluctant to burden Warburton with the captaincy before form has wholly returned, Gethin Jenkins assumes leadership of Wales thanks to Ryan Jones’ broken shoulder. Having missed out on Scotland due to a calf complaint, the Toulon loosehead gets his 98th cap from the front-line in every sense. However, Dan Cole might just smell blood. Should Jenkins not be able to match the Leicester man – either in the scrum or as a pilfering presence – Wales’ skipper could quickly become a weakness. In any case, Jones’ punching runs around the fringes and general aura will be sorely missed.
A Grand Slam is excruciatingly difficult – more so even than making this call. Fittingly, England’s toughest assignment has come at the death in the most intimidating of environments. They won’t shirk the challenge and may still attain silverware for finishing on top of the table. But, as the vintages between 1999 and 2002 found, the last hurdle will prove too high. Wales by 4.
By Charlie Morgan