England renew hostilities with Wales in battle of smarts, steel and skill

Harry Latham-Coyle
·5-min read
<p>England in action against Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup</p> (Getty Images)

England in action against Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup

(Getty Images)

With the first fallow week behind us, we arrive at the Six Nations’ middle stanza, a sole weekend of fixtures around which it pivots. As a Covid-19 outbreak in the French camp perhaps threatens to tilt the tournament off its axis for a second year in succession, a pivotal abridged round awaits.

It would be a grand shame were the situation in France to wreak havoc beyond the uncertainty over the Scotland game. The first two rounds of this tournament have brought action and intrigue, expectations of a Six Nations behind closed doors largely subverted and home audiences, both anecdotally and according to impressive viewing figures, apparently captivated.

To Cardiff, then, a city that truly comes to life on a Six Nations weekend, and never more so than when England are in town. While the prospect of spectators returning to the ground and the Welsh capital’s streets appears to be moving closer, for now the River Taff’s lonesome course past an empty Principality Stadium will be only liquid flowing on Saturday.

Wales welcome England to again stoke the spitting, crackling fires of this hostile rivalry. It will not be the same, of course, without fans, but although both camps have been a little less spiky than on some occasions in the past, it is rarely a subdued affair on the pitch.

“These big games are usually down to intensity,” England captain Owen Farrell opined. “We all want a performance out of ourselves. There is probably more onus on yourselves to create your own atmosphere and your own energy. We will be looking to play as hard and as fair and as intense as we can.”

England will need to improve on a dominant if not altogether impressive victory against ItalyGetty Images
England will need to improve on a dominant if not altogether impressive victory against ItalyGetty Images

It is a clash of similarly built, battle-hardened teams that entices, with both sides showing signs of progress in their last action. Wayne Pivac endured a tough first year after succeeding Warren Gatland, but his Welsh side hunt a Triple Crown this weekend. Behind only France at the top of the Six Nations table having survived both Ireland and Scotland while without several key contributors, they already have more Six Nations wins than in 2020.

Why is enthusiasm slightly tempered, then? Well, the manner of both victories has been quirkily similar and a touch fortunate – each coming against 14 men with Wales unable to pull out of sight even with a man advantage. Winning while not at your best can be the sign of a championship winning side, or it can mean flaws and faults are overlooked and exposed.

Still, Wales are certainly right to be optimistic: there is plenty to like about this team. After some enforced meanders towards fresher faces, Pivac has largely settled on a side long on experience that possesses the gnarl, snarl and savvy required to survive and thrive in Test rugby. This is Wales’ healthiest squad of the tournament thus far and Jonathan Davies’ return at inside centre is welcome; Kieran Hardy, one of those newer names, starts at scrum-half.

George North partners Davies in midfield and becomes the youngest player to reach 100 international caps in a highly-successful career that seems curiously unfulfilled. Tellingly, all but one (Gareth Thomas) of the previous five Welshmen to reach a century are involved in this campaign – captain Alun Wyn Jones, defence coach Gethin Jenkins, attack coach Stephen Jones and team manager Martyn Williams.

Jenkins, who took over after Byron Hayward’s abrupt departure in the autumn, has reconstructed a powerful defensive unit that attacks the breakdown. They are led on that front by the magnificent Justin Tipuric with able support from impressive propping pair Wyn Jones and Tomas Francis: each red card came after the illegal use of the shoulder to try and remove one of them contesting at the breakdown. Wales have been clinical and mature in attack thanks to prudent option-taking and outside backs capable of finishing the chances when they come.

“They are kicking a lot more than they were initially under Wayne,” Eddie Jones said of Wales’ approach. “They are kicking more, having less rucks, which is more efficient rugby and has allowed them to be in better positions to win games.

“They had a transitional period with a new coach which is normal in teams after they have had a successful period. Tactically they are probably a little bit more similar to how they were under Gatland now. They are a tough, competitive team.”

England have plenty of toughness and experience too, making two changes to the side that made tentative progress against Italy. One of those would not have occurred had Courtney Lawes not damaged his pectoral in training on Wednesday, but his absence means Mark Wilson joins Jamie George in being elevated to the starting fifteen. Leicester’s 19-year-old “old-school” forward George Martin, a mature head on rather large young shoulders who has settled in quickly this week, could make a debut as Jones again opts for a hefty bench that could be key in a clash that is often tight to the last.

England’s head coach is prepared for another meeting of relative equals: “We know that the games go down to the wire and it is about executing plays. Experience definitely helps. Having a mental model in your head, all of the research shows that if you have had that experience you are able to sometimes anticipate and sometimes react quicker and come up with a solution about how to handle certain situations. I think we are evolving into a more street-smart team.

“It means a lot to both countries. They are always tough games and I think this is the allure of the Six Nations. Both teams face similar pressure – it is a make-or-break game.”

Having seen the impact a red card can have, both sides will be wary of straying to the wrong side of the line in pursuing intensity in a game of such importance. Street smarts, steel and a fair bit of skill will be required as England and Wales look to strike the right balance in Cardiff.

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