If ever there was a weekend for rugby to supply an escape from the cares of the world, this is it. This might not have been the most uplifting of Six Nations championships but against a backdrop of grim coronavirus bulletins and widespread flooding, Saturday’s match between England and Wales at Twickenham is a hugely welcome distraction.
With next week’s final-round fixture in Italy already postponed and England’s summer tour to Japan in July not entirely certain to proceed, it also represents the last opportunity for now for Eddie Jones’s team to banish further the disappointment of their World Cup final defeat. Win well and they could yet sneak the title away from under French noses at a later date. Underperform and the charge of flattering only to deceive may once more have to be revived.
This particular date, either way, has been circled in red for over a year. John Mitchell, the defence coach, freely admits he and his players have not forgotten the game in Cardiff 12 months ago when Wales came from 10-3 down at half-time to win 21-13 and put themselves on track for a raucously acclaimed grand slam. “It’s amazing how some games niggle away at you,” said Mitchell, after England’s final training run in bright south-west London sunshine. “That’s one that niggles away in your stomach and your head. It’s a good thing. If you’re a competitor – and there are plenty inside our dressing room – I’m sure it will be a motivation.”
On this occasion the immediate priority will be to try to ignore swirling off-field events beyond their control. Even the most ardent campaigners for ‘clean’ sport never envisaged an 82,000-capacity stadium packed to the rafters with hand sanitisers. The point has not yet been reached where both teams walk out wearing face masks for the anthems but should the captains opt to touch health-conscious elbows with the referee, Ben O’Keeffe, prior to kick-off rather than shake hands it really will set a Twickenham precedent.
Once the whistle goes, though, England will be deliberately seeking as much contact with as many red jerseys as possible. There has been nothing subtle about their modus operandi for this championship and setting out to hassle and suffocate Wales at source will be the primary aim. Ireland could not get any prolonged foothold at HQ a fortnight ago and there is a fair chance of history repeating itself.
Or at least there should be if England, as they insist they will, turn up in earnest. This season that has not always been a given. This is a side who found themselves 17-0 down at half-time in Paris only to be 17-0 up at the same juncture against Ireland a mere three weeks later. If they are not winning the collisions, it makes a massive difference to their potency. Take away the tries they have collected following opportunistic kicks ahead – two against Ireland, one against France and, indirectly, Ellis Genge’s in Scotland after Stuart Hogg got in a tangle under his own posts – and England have scored only two others all tournament, one courtesy of a piece of Jonny May magic in Paris and the other a close-range drive from Luke Cowan-Dickie against the Irish. Perhaps significantly, neither of those was scored prior to the final quarter. If England do not start well, it does not absolutely scupper them but it undoubtedly galvanises the opposition.
For Wales to stand any realistic chance, therefore, they will need to be rather more than competitive at the breakdown, where Josh Navidi’s inclusion is significant, stand resolutely firm in the scrums and enjoy supremacy in the aerial battle, the lineout included. With Liam Williams back to complement Leigh Halfpenny and the patched-up Dan Biggar, England are anticipating plenty of hoisted high balls, while it is equally certain the visitors will look to get beneath the skins of the English half-backs, George Ford and Ben Youngs.
On the front foot Ford and Youngs, in common with most half-backs, are past masters at dictating a game’s tempo and shape. Remove that vital platform and, as Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray found a fortnight ago, it becomes an infinitely harder game. Wales could certainly do with an appropriately flaky Youngs performance on his 99th England appearance as they try to avoid suffering three consecutive Six Nations defeats for the first time since 2007.
The visitors, furthermore, have not won a Six Nations game at Twickenham since 2012, although they were more than a touch unfortunate to lose 12-6 two years ago, saved by Sam Underhill’s last-ditch tackle and a dubious TMO decision which denied Gareth Anscombe a potential try. They were well beaten 33-19, however, in a World Cup warm-up game last August and England’s 2015 World Cup pool defeat increasingly belongs to a different era.
Mitchell and the Wales coach, Wayne Pivac, have also been in opposing camps in a former life, having played against each other for Waikato and North Harbour respectively in what the former remembers as “quite spiteful” contests back in the day. There is a sense this time, though, that Wales will be doing mighty well to become only the third team after Ireland and New Zealand to win at Twickenham in the Jones era. There is also a Triple Crown up for grabs, something modern England squads have contrived to secure only twice – aside from their 2016 grand slam – since 2003. “We feel the guys are totally ready for what is to come,” insisted Mitchell. “It’s going to be hugely contestable, highly chaotic and physical. On top of that we’re at home. It’s important for us to play well in front of our fans.”
They will vehemently disagree in Rome but it is also Mitchell’s view that playing at Twickenham is “like the Colosseum” on big days like this. He was on safer ground in suggesting that sport can be a glorious antidote in times of global strife. “The great thing about rugby is that it brings diverse people together. It’s an opportunity for everyone to put aside their struggles and challenges for two to three hours and enjoy an outing.” The 2020 Six Nations championship has not always been awash with feelgood vibes but England may be saving their best until last.