Preview: England v Wales

Date published: September 25 2015

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After years of hype England and Wales finally meet in the Rugby World Cup pool stages in a pivotal clash at Twickenham.

Debate over the victor in Saturday's game has been incessant ever since the group stage draw was made back at the end of 2012, just a few months before Wales thrashed England 30-3 in what is widely regarded as Stuart Lancaster's worst result in charge.

Alex Cuthbert, who terrorised England that day, has never hit the same heights since and has to make do with a place on the bench behind the exciting Hallam Amos, who turned 21 on Thursday.

Since that 2013 low point England have won against Wales at Twickenham and more impressively back in February earlier this year, on a Friday night in Cardiff, when despite going behind early on they were comprehensively the better side.

That triumph was inspired in many ways by a new Test combination of George Ford and Jonathan Joseph at fly-half and outside centre, with Joseph's quick feet producing a try and Ford being named Man of the Match. Neither will start at Twickenham – Joseph injured, Ford dropped to the bench.

Lancaster has been caught out by Wales' size and power before, a factor that will have helped his decision to go for the 196cm, 116kg frame of Sam Burgess in England's midfield as opposed to Henry Slade, despite his limited experience of Union at the top level.

Ford is the more interesting call, but with England playing far too laterally against Fiji and lacking enough punch through the middle it's no surprise to see Lancaster opt for more thrust.

Farrell, who won a Test cap for the British and Irish Lions in 2013, may lack Ford's attacking nose for the line, but is the sturdier option against the Welsh runners trying to batter their way over the gain-line.

Even Wales boss Warren Gatland though admitted to being caught off guard by Lancaster's sudden flip of the cards.

Saturday though will hinge on more areas than the midfield. Wales were expected to go with two rampaging flankers in captain Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric to expose England at the breakdown. Gatland though has kept faith with Dan Lydiate for his chopping tackles when they will be needed most.

England's tight-five noticeably struggled against Fiji and in the warm-up matches, boosting the chances of a big Welsh unit featuring Exeter Chiefs prop Tomas Francis in only his third start backed up by the outstanding Alun Wyn Jones, who returns from a knee injury.

Few officials are stricter when it comes to refereeing the scrum than Jérôme Garcès, making early dominance imperative.

Excellent kicker that he is, Dan Biggar will still be under huge pressure to match the injured Leigh Halfpenny's productivity off the kicking tee.

The Ospreys fly-half has played his best rugby since emerging as Wales' first-choice at fly-half last year, but this is the biggest pressure he has ever faced playing for Wales.

Then again, the same can be said for all 46 players involved. The reprecussions of losing Saturday's game are enormous, with the loser then left in a must-win situation against Australia and hoping other results go their way.

Groups of death might be a thing of the past by 2019 if World Rugby goes through on remodelling the seeding process, making this year's clashes the last of their kind and something to savour.

Saturday's loser may argue otherwise.

Ones to Watch

For England: Farrell and Burgess have taken the headlines but the start of Billy Vunipola at number eight gives England that extra burst of quick power to break the line when needed most. Coming up with the key try last Friday (not that he knew it counted for a bonus point), Vunipola now starts and looks fitter than ever.

For Wales: After years of Wales going supersized on the wings in comes Hallam Amos, 17kg lighter than his partner George North. The quality of Amos' footwork caught Gatland by surprise in training and his left-footed kicking option will be an advantage as both teams battle for territory.

Head-to-head: England's best player against Fiji, seeing Mike Brown go up against Liam Williams leaps out when considering how each full-back is able to score tries out of nothing. Brown's concussion problems are well behind him and he took his two scores well last Friday, but now England need him constantly on the shoulder of Burgess looking for any offloads.

Williams has shaken off his own injury issues and just at the right time, even if he gave Welsh fans a scare against Uruguay. Different in style to Halfpenny but equally outstanding under the high ball, the creative Williams can really make a mark and prove he is Wales' long-term number one with a good outing at Twickenham.

Previous results:

2015: England won 21-16 in Cardiff
2014: England won 29-18 at Twickenham
2013: Wales won 30-3 in Cardiff
2012: Wales won 19-12 in London
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

Prediction: Factoring in home advantage at Twickenham and having won the last two matches between the two sides makes England slim favourites. But the core of this Welsh side have great World Cup experience, and despite losing at Twickenham on their last visit hold no fear of going to the heart of English rugby and coming away with a result. This seems destined to be settled by a late penalty after both sets of fans have been put through the wringer. England by 3! 

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Brad Barritt, 12 Sam Burgess, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Geoff Parling, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Rob Webber, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 James Haskell, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 George Ford, 23 Alex Goode

Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Gethin Jenkins
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Aaron Jarvis, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Alex Cuthbert

Date: Saturday, September 26
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 20:00 local (19:00 GMT)
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Mathieu Raynal (France)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)

by Ben Coles

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