So, the big one is looming. Wales travel to Twickenham on Sunday knowing that a loss to the old enemy will put their hopes of a third consecutive Six Nations Championship to bed with a bang.
Conversely, a win for Wales will put them within touching distance of making history, and with so much at stake, I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re going to see a real firecracker of a fixture on Sunday.
What does last year mean?
Quite naturally I suppose, there has been a lot of media attention on the thrashing that Wales dished out to England last year as they romped to the title at the Millennium Stadium. There has been a lot written about whether England will be looking to gain revenge and whether or not the sheer one-sideness of Wales’ victory gives them an advantage heading into this weekend’s game.
So, does last year’s result give Wales an advantage this year? Of course it does. Wales didn’t beat England last year because England were unlucky; Wales beat England last year because they were a hell of a lot better. We can talk till we’re blue in the face about the fact that this is a different England side to the one that capitulated last year, but the truth of the matter is that largely speaking, it’s the same boys heading out against the same boys. Wales have been a much better team than England, and they’ve got the trophies to prove it.
Why Austin Healey is wrong
If you’ve read Austin Healey’s BT Sport article then you’ll be well aware that the ‘has been’ has been up to his old tricks once again.
He’s jumped on the Jack Nowell bandwagon of claiming that the Welsh hate the English but he’s also suggested that he thinks England have the better backline; something he considers is a ‘crucial edge’.
Now I’m not going to state definitely whether or not I think England have got a better back line (although they almost certainly do not). What I am going to do is question how Healey can possibly consider that a ‘crucial edge’, even if it is true. Has Healey not rewatched the 30-3 thumping his side received last year? If he thinks that England lost because Wales had better backs then he’s more foolish than I thought. On Sunday – as it was last year – the game will be won and lost up front. Simple as. These days, no back line in the world (perhaps bar the Wallabies and All Blacks) is good enough to be a ‘crucial edge’ if the forwards are not dominating.
Unless England can beat us at the scrum, lineout and breakdown, there’s no chance of them beating us.
The lineout is one area of the game that I am concerned about. I think I’ve made it quite clear that I’m not a huge fan of Luke Charteris, but what can’t be denied is that he is extremely useful at the lineout. With Charteris now out, Jake Ball slots in, and although he put in a phenomenal shift against France, I think it’s pretty much a fact that our lineout is weaker without Charteris. With Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood more than able lineout forwards, we’re going to need a big performance from Alun-Wyn Jones if we’re to succeed at lineout time.
And of course, as all of us Welsh fans know, we really need to succeed at lineout time. Getting clean lineout ball is our best chance of getting Jamie and George into the game and getting our forwards around the corner and over the gainline. If Lawes and Wood can disrupt us, we could be in for a long afternoon.
I feel like we can feel pretty confident at scrum time. Roman Poite is refereeing which means that anything (literally) is possible, but nevertheless, I feel that with Dan Cole out, and Gethin and Adam coming off the back of good performances against France, we should be able to at least gain parity in the scrums.
We had the edge last year, and we’ve still got the edge – as long as our back row turn up. Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau didn’t turn up against Ireland and then followed that dismal defeat with amazing performances against France. The back row is so key because our turnover machine (I’ll call it Lydburton) is so crucial to us getting the ball to people like Alex Cuthbert and George North. If the back row play like they played against Ireland, we’re going to get hammered. If they can win the collisions, haul players down and get over the ball, I think they’ll make hay all afternoon long.
Danny Care has been the heartbeat of this England side, but I think he’ll face a different proposition on Sunday. As long as our back five can cut down his time and space I think we can nullify his threat, and of course, a scrumhalf like Care is a lot less effective when his side aren’t on the front foot. Same old story really: win the collisions and stop Care getting into his stride.
I’m not going to lie, I’m slightly concerned about Webb. He had a great game against France, but we’ve got to be honest with ourselves, France didn’t really turn up and our domination up front basically meant that Webb had an easy ride. Whilst we should win the breakdown contest this week, it’s likely to be a lot more even; meaning that Webb will have less time and space on the ball. He was brilliant against France, but he will need to up his performance level even more if he is to be successful on Sunday.
Similarly to Care, if our blitz defence can get onto Farrell we can force him to stand deeper and that should force him to kick more ball away. If we can do that when he’s outside the 22, we’ve got a great chance of getting the ball to our back three. Whilst I think Farrell is a decent player, his cheap shots and general bad behaviour have really not endeared me to him this year. I think that’s something we need to feed on and I’d brief a few of the bigger boys to have a word in his ear and rile him up early doors on Sunday.
I think Priestland is starting to come back into his stride, and I think it’s great for him that Jonathan Davies is back in the side. One thing he will need to be very wary of his kicking from hand. Mike Brown is in devastating form at the moment, and if we kick the ball down his throat, he will run rings around us. I’d rather Priestland kicked as seldom as possible, but if he is going to kick I think he should either be going for grass or touch.
The English media have been doing their best to bill the battle of the centres as an even contest. It’s not. Our centres are miles better than theirs, and although Billy Twelvetrees is more of a distributor than either Davies or Roberts, I’ve got to be honest and say that his distribution skills are unlikely to matter too much on Sunday.
Once again, the English media have been keen to paint Brown, Nowell and May as on a similar level to Halfpenny, North and Cuthbert; but the fact of the matter is that only Brown would have a hope in hell of getting into the Welsh team. That’s not to say that we should underestimate them – they both have quality, but rather than worrying about their threats we should be thinking about the fact that in North we have one of the most devastating runners in world rugby. Similarly, Cuthbert is one of the best finishers around – we need to get the ball into the hands of these guys.
Who deserves the favourites tag?
There’s been all sorts of to-ing and fro-ing about who is the favourite for this game. For me, it’s Wales; at least on paper.
Go through the teams and I think you’d be able to make a case for Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Danny Care, Owen Farrell and Mike Brown being better than their opposite number at this point in time. That leaves ten Welshmen who are better than their opposite number, including six forwards. If that doesn’t give us an advantage, I don’t know what does.
Who will win?
The most significant advantage for England is obviously the fact that they’re playing at home, but Twickenham doesn’t hold fears for this Welsh team. England haven’t beaten us since before the World Cup and quite simply, our team is better, stronger, more organised and more established. I’m not saying Wales will definitely win, but we’re certainly in the box seat.