All roads lead to Cardiff this weekend in the Six Nations championship as the two remaining unbeaten sides go head-to-head in what many are calling a potential title decider. With two rounds of fixtures to come after this weekend’s match, there will be still be much to play for, but both Wales and England know that victory over their rivals would deliver a hammer blow to the others’ title prospects. With both line-ups confirmed here are just some of the key individual battles that might go some way to deciding this titanic clash….
Rob Evans v Kyle Sinckler
Evans has got the nod over Ospreys loose-head Nicky Smith for the big game and Gatland will be expecting another strong display from the Scarlets prop. Having played in the opening match in Paris where the Wales scrum went well, it is not much of a surprise that Gatland has gone for the scrummaging prowess of Evans against a formidable English pack, although Evans also possesses an impressive set of handling skills.
Amongst that pack of English forwards, Kyle Sinckler has emerged as a key man at tight-head and having enjoyed a rapid rise in test rugby over the last few years that included a Lions tour to New Zealand, the talented Sinckler has now seemed to nail down the no.3 jersey ahead of the World Cup. The Harlequins prop is a solid anchor at scrum-time, yet it is his energy and dynamism around the park which has marked him out as such a prospect and given the backing of coach Eddie Jones the young prop has blossomed into a key performer for England.
Two players with a real edge to their games their battle in the scrum could produce some fireworks, but also expect them to have a big say in the action around the park with their ball-carrying and handling skills.
Cory Hill v Courteney Lawes
Dragons captain Hill comes into the starting XV having come off the bench to produce a lively cameo performance against France in the first match of the championship. Replacing Adam Beard – who struggled at line-out time against Italy – in the boiler-house Hill will be expected to secure good line-out ball alongside captain Alun Wyn Jones in order to provide a platform for Wales’ backs to have a go at an English defence that has yet to be properly tested thus far. More of a footballer than Beard, Gatland obviously hopes Hill’s subtle handling skills come to the fore in attack to go with his customary defensive work.
Northampton lock Lawes is a destructive defender who relishes smashing the opposition back in defence, but is also a fine athlete who uses his gangly frame well in attack with his offloading game and can cause waves in attack as well as defence. It is a sign of England’s strength in depth in this position that when one Lions forward goes down with injury (Itoje) they can call on the skills of another in Lawes.
Two strong athletic lock forwards who also do the basics well, their respective coaches will be hoping they can do some damage in attack and defence.
Gareth Anscombe v Owen Farrell
Blues’ fly-half Anscombe has go the nod over Dan Biggar for the no.10 jersey and having struggled in poor conditions in Paris a couple of weeks ago will be looking to make amends in what are likely to be more favourable conditions in Cardiff. Gatland has picked Anscombe for his attacking credentials and having shown some signs that he can spark this Welsh backline into action, Gatland will be expecting Anscombe to show more consistency in attack and cancel out some of the mistakes that can often creep in with his daring approach. However there is no doubt that when on form Anscombe provides Wales with a more creative and attacking edge from 10 as shown by his neat chip through for Owen Watkin’s try against Italy in the last round.
England captain Farrell has barely put a foot wrong so far in the championship having led England to two highly impressive wins. From his exquisite pass that unlocked the Irish defence for Jonny May’s early try in Dublin to his clever kicking game against France last time out, the Saracens man has steered the ship effortlessly so far and will relish the atmosphere provided by a big match in Cardiff.
A case of master against apprentice at this level, all eyes will be on Anscombe to see how he fares against one of the best fly-halves in world rugby with the jury still out on whether he is the best man for the job for Wales ahead of the World Cup. England will look to target him in a similar way to how they unsettled Rhys Patchell last year in what is the biggest game of Anscombe’s Wales career to date. Farrell has few if any weaknesses and is ice cool under pressure, yet he has had something of an arm-chair ride so far and Wales must ensure that they give no time on the ball and stop him from dictating play.
George North v Jonny May
Welsh wing North had something of a mixed bag against the French, at fault for France’s second try but on hand to score two tries as Wales came from behind to win in Paris. The Ospreys winger is a prolific try-scorer and give him half a chance and he is likely to take it, however he can be found wanting in defence and whilst England will be wary of his obvious attacking threat they will be keen to test out his defensive skills and put him under pressure.
The form winger in world rugby at the moment, Jonny May has had a scintillating start to the tournament with four tries in two games. May has always been super-fast and a deadly finisher yet it is the improvement to his defensive and aerial game that has seen him rise to become a regular fixture in England’s team. That said May remains partial to the odd mistake and Wales will be keen to isolate him in defence and see how he responds in such an intense atmosphere.
Two of the best finishers in test rugby, both will be relishing the chance of getting their hands on the ball and having a go at the opposition defence but must also stand up and help their team-mates in defence.
Jonathan Davies v Henry Slade
Still finding his way back to form after a lengthy injury lay-off, Wales centre Jonathan Davies has yet to hit the heights that saw him crowned Lions Player of the Series in 2017. Captained the side for the first time against Italy in Rome but had a disappointing display in what was a lacklustre Welsh performance. That said the Scarlets man is a world-class performer who is proven at this level. A key man for his side both in defence and attack, Wales will need him at his best if they are to stop this England side and will be desperate to exorcise the demons of England’s last visit to Cardiff where his costly kick helped England clinch the win.
England centre Slade has been one of the players of the tournament so far. Produced a coming-of-age performance in the opening match in Dublin where his two tries helped England to a 32-20 win over defending champions Ireland and backed up that with another try-scoring display against the French. The Exeter-man has always been a classy footballer but has taken time to adapt to test rugby, but is now showcasing his full array of skills. Has formed a solid midfield partnership with the rampaging Manu Tuilagi and provides England with an alternative to Farrell as a playmaker and another kicking option.
A vastly experienced campaigner, England will be all too aware of Davies’ strengths and will look to stop him from igniting any moves in attack with his powerful running game, whilst Wales will look to shut down Slade stop his kicking game at source and prevent him from getting into any rhythm in attack.