If possible, this year’s encounter between England and Wales is even bigger than last year’s instalment at the Millennium Stadium. The result that day, a 30-3 drubbing to the hosts, is just one of the reasons there is such intrigue surrounding Twickenham on Sunday – add in an impending World Cup game to be played on the same soil, a Six Nations title still very much up for grabs and a potential Triple Crown for the hosts (not to mention bragging rights for fans for another year), and it’s little wonder there’s such a frenzy surrounding this one.
Stuart Lancaster makes one injury-enforced change to what is otherwise a settled team. Billy Vunipola misses out, with Ben Morgan, used thus far as an impact substitute, coming into the starting line-up, and Exeter’s Tom Johnson taking his spot on the bench.
Vunipola is a loss, no doubt, but Morgan has been playing well off the bench and probably deserved to be given a start anyway. If they lose a bit of ball-carrying power, it is marginal, and they gain a bit of mobility.
The back-line looks settled for the first time in a while, with Luther Burrell, Jack Nowell and Jonny May staving off the threat of the returning Manu Tuilagi and Marland Yarde. With those two back in training, however, the incumbents will know they cannot continue to squander the sorts of chances that went missing against Ireland.
The pack is powerful and mobile, and with Tom Wood in his preferred position of blindside, as opposed to number eight last year, England will be confident of not being blown away at the breakdown as they were in Cardiff.
Today’s news that Luke Charteris is out with injury is not good for Wales. Jake Ball is his replacement, and while he acquitted himself well in the loose on his full debut against France in the last round, Wales will miss Charteris’ line-out prowess, particularly against an English unit that has been working efficiently so far.
Any team that contains 12 Lions is always going to have a good chance of winning. There is quality throughout this team, from the gnarled warriors in the front row to the physicality in the centres and the finishers on the wing.
The scrum battle will be intense and Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones have a big job on their hands. They haven’t really convinced in the set piece this year, but will be confident of getting stuck into an England unit that looked shaky against Ireland.
Behind the scrum Rhys Webb continues at nine and will be tasked with getting snappy service to Rhys Priestland, who in turn must use it properly – his temperament has been questioned in some quarters, and you can bet that Owen Farrell, Mike Brown et al will get in his face in the opening encounters.
All eyes on
England’s baby-faced assassin in the engine room, Joe Launchbury, has been one of the players of the tournament so far. He will need to be at his best once again to combat the returning Alun-Wyn Jones. That tap tackle against Ireland sticks out in the memory, but really it is just one moment that typifies Launchbury’s immensely high work rate and desire to give everything for his country. In that regard, he is not dissimilar to his more-experienced adversary this weekend.
Has he been brought back too soon? Jonathan Davies has just one PRO12 game (excluding a brief outing in the LV= Cup) under his belt since the autumn, so it is certainly a gamble to put him straight back in for such a big occasion. Still, his partnership with Roberts in the centres, and the dangerous trio outside him, is a solid one. And remember last time people questioned him coming back into a team after injury? It worked out ok then…
Head to head: Chris Robshaw v Sam Warburton
There are intriguing match-ups across the park, but it is difficult to look beyond the battle of the captains when picking one that stands out. The breakdown battle will be fierce, and after being outplayed there last year Robshaw has a point to prove. Warburton is strong over the ball and played well against France, while Robshaw is more of a workhorse and will look for the likes of Launchbury and Wood to help him out there. And while it was quite a while ago now, the fact that one man captained the Lions and the other was left at home will still sting with the English captain – he has a point to prove.
It is never easy to predict England v Wales games (even the most die-hard Welsh fans weren’t predicting a 27 point swing last season), and this year is no different. On paper Wales look vastly superior, with an experienced spine to their team compared with England’s youthful exuberance (or naivety, depending on how you look at it). That said, this England team has been playing well, and they look settled and comfortable with each other. Early scores will be crucial, but it is tough to see either team running away with it like Wales did last year. It will be nip and tuck, but the fact that psychologically, with the World Cup looming, England simply cannot afford to lose this one, will be enough to see them over the line. England by 2.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images