England against Wales is a game that always stokes the fans’ emotions like few others, but what has gone before this weekend’s instalment of this fierce rivalry makes it all the tastier. Once Wales had beaten England on home turf at the World Cup – and especially after the hosts were subsequently knocked out – this weekend’s revenge mission has been ringed in the diary.
A changing of the guard behind the scenes does dampen that sense of revenge a bit – that was very much Lancaster’s England; this is Jones’s. The start of the Australian’s tenure has been widely regarded as a success; a win against the old enemy from across the Severn would make his approval almost universal.
The events in the tournament so far could scarcely have set this up better. Barring a surprised upturn in form from France, this can be regarded as a title decider. Neither side has set the world alight but both have quietly impressed in their ability to get the job done in an efficient manner – and you sense that it will be whoever continues that trend and makes the fewer mistakes this weekend, that will emerge the winner.
For the first time, Eddie Jones names an unchanged starting XV with the team that did the job against Ireland trusted to do the same against Wales. Eight of them started in that fateful World Cup game, but crucially, the most important combinations have been shaken up.
Owen Farrell and George Ford’s play-making partnership will look to allow England to get on the outside of a powerful but sometimes narrow Welsh team – Jonathan Joseph, who began a sparkling run of form with an audacious try in this game last year, will look to benefit.
Mike Brown’s 15 shirt is under threat, and he must find a way of linking up with Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell more often when he counters, rather than putting his head down and carrying every time. The wingers have looked dangerous on occasion, but could do with more chance to show it.
In the pack Joe Marler and Dan Cole will look to lay the foundation for the men behind them – Marler’s battle with Samson Lee is particularly intriguing. Saracens duo Maro Itoje and George Kruis will bring work ethic and raw power to the tight exchanges, while the quality of England’s attacking platform will depend largely on whether Wales can find a way to somehow stop Billy Vunipola’s dominance of the gainline when he carries.
Player to watch: James Haskell
Haskell is no-one’s idea of a traditional openside flanker, but his role has been key to establishing England’s miserly defence this Six Nations. From the right side of the scrum and the back of the lineout, he has been able to shoot out into midfield and halt attacking runners behind the gainline. With Jamie Roberts coming his way this weekend, he will have to be right at the top of his game.
Wales were widely lambasted for their narrow performance against France, but a win here – which would likely set them up for another post-World Cup Six Nations title – and that would quickly be forgotten. And besides, they are the product – not the cause – of a tournament that places a high premium on winning at all costs.
That being said, there have certainly been times in recent weeks when key Welsh figures have failed to execute the basics properly. Jamie Roberts will be used as a battering ram as usual, and that is fine provided those around him with a wider remit can get it right – Jonathan Davies, for example, has been guilty of kicking away good attacking possession too frequently this tournament.
In the pack Sam Warburton will be looking to exert some influence over the breakdown, but he will only be able to do so if the rest of the pack can equal or better the rucking work of the likes of Kruis and Haskell – two players that have been very successful in that regard so far.
The set piece will of course be a fierce battle, and while the scrum is too close to call, the lineout is an area Wales must get right. They have been hugely accurate in that regard so far, but Scott Baldwin did have his wobbles in the World Cup win over England – they will be unlikely to get away with that again this time round.
Player to watch: Taulupe Faletau
Faletau does not possess the raw power of opposite man and childhood friend Billy Vunipola, but that is fine because he is not used in the same sense (you could argue that Jamie Roberts is actually the man closest to Vunipola’s role in the Wales team). Faletau’s value lies in his intelligence with ball in hand – he has good feet and beautifully soft hands, as we saw in this encounter last year when he drew two men to him before sending Rhys Webb over with a delightful offload.
It is unlikely to be an especially pretty game, and whichever side wins the battle of the gainline will likely emerge as the winner. There has been much talk about the scrum this week, and there will certainly be plenty of focus on how Craig Joubert – returning to Twickenham for the first time since officiating that World Cup game – but in reality the set piece battle is likely to be pretty even.
It will come down to who makes fewer errors at the crucial times, and one thing England will certainly have to cut down on is their penalty count – Dan Biggar will be all too happy to repeat his World Cup kicking heroics otherwise.
While Eddie Jones has not reinvented the wheel with England, he has prepared his team to go out and beat whatever is in front of them thus far. With home advantage behind them, England must be slight favourites to win this one – and allay some of that World Cup pain. England by 3.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43