Wales’s tactical approach is easily seen in their team selection. Taulupe Faletau is a world-class player but he is still feeling his way back at Test level after a long injury layoff whereas in Josh Navidi Wales have picked an absolute terrier at the breakdown. Ireland’s problems at Twickenham centred around the fact that they were not able to meet England at the gainline and stop their ball carriers, and they could not slow their opponents’ ball as a result. England were then able to play Manu Tuilagi into the game, play wide and kick on their own terms, meaning their decision-makers George Ford and Owen Farrell had an armchair ride.
It will be up to Navidi and Justin Tipuric alongside him to get to the breakdown, slow England’s ball so the Wales defence has enough time to get off the line, reset and close down the space. The fact that Navidi comes straight into the team after such little game time shows how important the breakdown will be.
England have been dealt a blow with Sam Underhill missing – he is such a destructive defender because there is so much weight to his tackling – but, like Navidi for Wales, it is testament to the regard Eddie Jones holds Mark Wilson in that the Sale flanker comes into such an important position with such little rugby under his belt. The back-row battle is always key when England play Wales and the fact that in the nine Six Nations matches so far, eight of the players named man of the match have been flankers or No 8s only emphasises that.
The tight five
There seems to be a suspicion in Wales that they have dropped off in physicality since Wayne Pivac replaced Warren Gatland. I understand it but at the same time it does not seem quite right to be comparing three matches with a decade of success under Gatland. I understand because Wales are an impatient nation when it comes to rugby because it is such an emotive sport for them, and when it is England v Wales they are totally consumed by it.
Wales will have in their favour the underdogs’ tag. That is often a button Jones likes to press for his team but, in this instance, it belongs to Wales. Having said that, I do wonder where Wales will be able to get over the gainline.
The back-row battle is fascinating but England, on paper at least, really have the edge in the tight five. They have five British & Irish Lions who tore Ireland apart last time out. Wales used to bully teams like that but I don’t see how they win the battle up front. They were outmuscled by a young France team and pure emotion is not going to get you through 80 minutes.
It is an obvious mis-match, it’s one England will look to capitalise on and Matt Proudfoot’s influence should be visible in how they go about that. It seems too much of a coincidence that his arrival has come at the same time as England’s preference for a six-two split on the bench. It has suited the conditions – there hasn’t exactly been a lot of sunshine – but there has been an uplift at the scrum as well and I expect the home side to get on top there.
England’s competitive season will be over by Saturday night and there is a good chance that a few international careers will be too. I suspect that Joe Marler would have retired had England won the World Cup but this could be the last time we see him in an England shirt at Twickenham. I think you can put Ben Youngs and George Kruis in that category too and if this does mark the end of an era for this England squad then they will not be lacking in motivation. There is so much uncertainty swirling around at the moment – will the tournament ever be finished? – but for those guys, shutting out the external noise will be much easier. Rugby is a very emotive sport and there will be a lot of emotion for those guys.
On top of that, England need to put on a show at Twickenham. Since the World Cup this is only their third outing there – an opening training session, the Ireland match and this game. There is going to be a celebration at Twickenham before the match, more than 750 kids from 73 schools who are new to rugby this year from all different backgrounds and from all over the country. It brings a welcome note of positivity and the challenge for England is are they able to end their season by producing another massively physical performance as they did against Ireland? They weren’t able to at the World Cup so there will be a determination to put that right.
England need to beware of Wales’s ability to ruffle feathers. They did it last year, in particular with Alun Wyn Jones, but Ken Owens and Ross Moriarty are also protagonists. I do believe however, that England are improving that side of their game and are becoming more streetwise.
I look back to the incident with Maro Itoje against James Ryan and CJ Stander in the Ireland match. There are many different lenses from which to view an incident like that, but from a rugby point of view, that was one England player taking two Ireland players out of the game for five or six phases. There are plenty of ways to get under opponents’ skin, you can do it at the ruck, with your running lines but someone like Maro gets his energy by going after every scrum-half and targeting every box-kick, by dismantling rucks and taking players out.
When he is doing that kind of thing England are at their best, they harass and they hurry and they force their opponents to make mistakes. Wales can be very good at it too and we have two proud, passionate nations going at it. There will be plenty of flashpoints and whoever can keep cool will be hugely significant.