England vs. Wales: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Six Nations Clash
Clashes between England and Wales need hype like a raging fire needs an extra can of petrol.
The contest itself is enough to fill a stadium twice the size of Twickenham without the build up these games always get but let’s not let that stop us adding a little more sizzle to the steak.
With the tournament perfectly poised with four sides on four points apiece, the winner of this match will be the only realistic contender to Ireland for the title going into the last round.
It will also edge either side one game ahead in this fixture. The stats currently stand at 56 wins each and 12 draws.
Let’s also not forget this will be the last time they meet before Wales return to Twickenham in their pool match in the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
And then there is the "R" word. If England needed any extra motivation, they will find it in the thumping they took last season as Wales swept to the championship under the roof in Cardiff.
With microphones and dictaphones under their noses, players and coaches will deny revenge is on their minds until the cows are back in the shed.
But in the privacy of the dressing room a few minutes before kick-off, the captaincy handbook decrees that Chris Robshaw will certainly be using it then to give the fires one last stoke before leading his men out.
Here are the key battles.
1. Gethin Jenkins vs. David Wilson
Wilson’s match-fitness was questioned before England’s win over Ireland, but the Bath prop came through despite struggling in a few of the scrums.
He faces an equally stern test this weekend in the shape of Gethin Jenkins, man of the match in Wales' win over France.
The Cardiff loose head may not be as mobile as he was in his earlier years but his scrummaging remains destructive.
If Jenkins gets on top of his man it will limit the opportunities for Danny Care and Ben Morgan to launch attacks from the set-piece.
2. Joe Launchbury vs. Alun-Wyn Jones
Courtney Lawes and his partner in the engine room, Joe Launchbury, have taken the steps from promising young tyros to fully-fledged Test forwards in the last season.
Both men work tirelessly in ball carrying and defence, as evidenced by Launchbury’s tap tackle on Dave Kearney against Ireland.
Alun-Wyn Jones returns to the starting side for Wales after missing out against France, and he has been quick to heap praise on England’s young second row duo in an interview with the Guardian’s Paul Rees, insisting if there was a Lions tour this summer, both would be on the plane.
Jones will be doing his best to tarnish those burgeoning reputations on Sunday. The tussle at the lineout will be crucial but more than that, these are the men who can influence the ebb and flow of a game with a big hit or strong carry.
3. Chris Robshaw vs. Sam Warburton
So shattering was the defeat inflicted on England by Wales it made Warren Gatland’s selection for the Lions that bit easier.
Where an Englishman may have been pressing a strong claim for a spot, it was emphatically ripped away from him by that Welsh performance.
As ever, the contest between the two No. 7s will be pivotal. Against France, Warburton looked somewhere close to his best at the breakdown, while Robshaw’s form has been good all season as he continues to defy those who would prefer a genuine jackal on England’s openside flank.
Sunday will be a test of how much the English captain has learned from last year’s horror show in Cardiff.
4. Danny Care vs. Rhys Webb
Care is in the form of his life in an England shirt.
Doubts used to swirl around whether his instinctive style suited England and with the emergence of Ben Youngs, Care’s place as first-choice No. 9 was no longer secure. His form this season won him the shirt back for the championship though, following a ringing endorsement from his club coach Conor O'Shea in the Telegraph:
What Danny brings is special, an X-factor that can turn a game. Too many people focus on the occasional blemish and fail to realise just what dynamism he can bring to a side. His performances in this tournament have firmly put him back in the box seat, however.
His quick taps and eye for a break can put England through a gap before a defence has time to organize itself.
Rhys Webb was brought in to do something similar for Wales, with Warren Gatland asking for a higher tempo than that supplied by Mike Phillips. Wales Online’s Delme Parfitt said of Webb:
[He] provided some much-needed zip with his passing and speed at the breakdown during the win against the French… Their battle will depend on which pack of forwards gains prominence of course, but their respective buoyancy should make for a fascinating match-up.
5. Owen Farrell vs. Rhys Priestland
Owen Farrell has impressed with his flatter starting position when England attack.
It has allowed him to make the most of the arrow-straight lines taken by the likes of Luther Burrell and Billy Vunipola.
The latter is missing this weekend but his replacement Ben Morgan is almost a like-for-like swap when it comes to that facet of his game, so Farrell will have those right and left options open to him against Wales.
If he gets them through the Welsh rearguard, he will lay the foundations for an England win.
Rhys Priestland has played a very different game so far in this championship, choosing to stand deeper and find space further out wide for his big wings, George North and Alex Cuthbert.
He has had less success with his plan than Farrell, and—perversely considering the walloping Farrell and his mates took 12 months ago—it’s the Englishman who probably comes into this match with higher confidence. Their tactical duel will be fascinating.