Sam Warburton will be looking to lift the Triple Crown on Twickenham soil when Wales meet rivals England in the Six Nations on Saturday.
Sam Warburton will be looking to lift the Triple Crown on Twickenham soil when Wales meet a new-look England XV in the Six Nations this Saturday.
Warren Gatland's charges have unsurprisingly been installed as favourites for this round three meeting, but those odds have slimmed of late. Reasoning for this is largely down to starting shirts handed to four Englishmen, one docking (had to) at centre, the others at lock, nine and a Scarlet taking over from Phil Dowson at eight.
Furthermore, the prospect of playing at a venue where England have lost only once to the Welsh in 23 years also leads to many seeing a tight one.
Had this been two weeks ago then the majority would predict one winner but there is just a smattering of the unknown associated with this English line-up, which of course conversely begs the question of whether this is just another one of those infamous 'false dawns'. We wait, although selection is correct from coach Stuart Lancaster.
Lee Dickson has more than earned his jersey after being the catalyst for the lift in tempo against the Azzurri. Meanwhile, Ben Morgan was strong off the bench and Manu Tuilagi seemingly showed enough against Saracens to warrant his selection. Toby Flood's non-drop-goal might have cost him a start. Flood does do enough to get in on the bench though due to Charlie Hodgson suffering a cut hand.
But this will be the acid test for England after facing the lower-ranked Scotland and Italy thus far. Wales are definitely a different kettle of fish. What the visitors possess is the ability to turn a game when they want to, unlike a few years ago when they seemed more to hope that a game would open up. Today they have a calmness and confidence in their own and each other's game that is great to see, which is why a March 17 finale with France is asterisked.
A second victory at Twickenham since 1988 would keep Wales in contention for that Grand Slam and build on the promise of fourth spot at the 2011 World Cup. While we are on the statistics, here are a few more to turn the cogs upstairs: the countries have met on 122 occasions – England lead the series 56-54, with 12 draws; Wales will secure their 20th Five or Six Nations Championship Triple Crown if they beat England on Saturday; when Wales last defeated England at Twickenham – Warren Gatland's first fixture as head coach – they progressed to claim the 2008 Six Nations Championship title and clinched a Grand Slam.
Meant to be?
It will depend on a few areas, one having been selection. While being a fan of what Hodgson has done since moving to Saracens, adding to his impeccable distributive skills with a sturdier approach, Owen Farrell's shift to fly-half is a positive one for England. Why? Well I feel they would not win an expansive battle with their settled opponents. Furthermore the physicality of a midfield combination of Brad Barritt alongside Tuilagi was needed against messieurs Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies – two of the top midfield men in world rugby right now – and with Farrell a solid defender on the inside, expect both sides to struggle to break through impressive defensive walls in the centre-field at Twickenham.
This could well be a battle around the fringes and in the air as Wales would have taken note of Ben Foden's mistakes in Rome and told Rhys Priestland to pepper the Saint early on. Priestland will also utilise those two wings in the shape of George North and Alex Cuthbert, who have so far offered a whole lot more than England's Chris Ashton and David Strettle.
A lot will once again rest on the shoulders of the youthful Farrell though – not just from the tee – as he prepares for his first full Test appearance at Twickenham in a cool manner.
“I've always wanted to work the game out and be a person who guides a team,” he said, having this week been compared to a young Jonny Wilkinson by Wales legend Neil Jenkins.
“It's just a step in one position (from inside centre to fly-half). You do have responsibility but you've got some unbelievable players around you, not just here but at Saracens.”
However, Wales will be nothing like he and England have faced.
Ones to watch:
For England: The four newcomers of course. Manu Tuilagi will offer something fresh to the Red Rose than they have had over the opening two rounds while Lee Dickson is brought in to help speed things up at the base behind Ben Morgan. England also sacrifice a dollop of weight in their lock department as Tom Palmer goes for Geoff Parling, which is a bold move from Stuart Lancaster. Parling is a clever rugby player and one that has performed strongly for Leicester since coming back from injury, deserving his bench spot and now a start.
For Wales: Saturday heralds the return of the king for Wales as Sam Warburton slips back into his number seven jersey in place of Aaron Shingler. Credit where credit is due, Shingler was superb in stepping up at the eleventh hour against Scotland but he must now settle for a spot on the Scarlets' bench as Warburton assumes the captaincy. In what is a formidable and balanced back-row, Wales will hope for a repeat performance from Dan Lydiate and further back the form of centre Jonathan Davies is also worth keeping an eye on.
Head-to-head: I'm most looking forward to the battle between Dan Cole and Gethin Jenkins. The duo are arguably the British and Irish Lions number three and one if they were to run out against the Wallabies tomorrow (yes, Cian Healy may have something to say about that). Elsewhere and there has yet to be this kind of pressure on Chris Ashton's performance and it has to be said that he can count himself somewhat lucky that Charlie Sharples hasn't remained injury free. His personal battle with fellow wing roamer Alex Cuthbert should be interesting, particularly as the Welshman has found good form.
2011: Wales won 19-9 in Cardiff
2011: England won 23-19 in London
2011: England won 26-19 in Cardiff
2010: England won 30-17 in London
2009: Wales won 23-15 in Cardiff
2008: Wales won 26-19 in London
2007: England won 62-5 in London
2007: Wales won 27-18 in Cardiff
2006: England won 47-13 in London
2005: Wales won 11-9 in Cardiff
2004: England won 31-21 in London
2003: England won 28-17 in Brisbane
2003: England won 43-9 in Cardiff
2003: England won 26-9 in Cardiff
Prediction: Because of ability to dictate games on their own terms, Wales by 6!
England: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manusamoa Tuilagi, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (capt), 6 Tom Croft, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Alex Corbisiero.