For the third time in eight months England and Wales will slug it out for supremacy at Twickenham on Sunday. In an actual Test match. Seriously.
Enthusiasm for this one is nowhere near the levels surrounding the World Cup clash and this year’s Six Nations meeting, and rightly so, because having this fixture when half of England’s starting XV is unavailable is absurd.
Knowing that England won’t be fielding their best side makes a Welsh win feel almost worthless.
Facing the Barbarians in the past was the ideal game to host on the Sunday of a weekend when everyone’s focus was on the Premiership final, if it was necessary to even have a game at all, because the result was irrelevant.
Now despite the best marketing efforts and proclamations from within both camps about the importance before heading to Australia and New Zealand of having a real warm-up – England-Wales is a warm-up?! – and about the rivalry between the two countries, which does impressively stand at 59 wins for England and 57 for Wales, we’ve been served up a game that feels hollow and unworthy of said rivalry.
If there’s a saving grace for this game it’s the chance to see how England’s uncapped players go against a strong Welsh XV.
No player finished the season with more buzz about his performances than Teimana Harrison and now the Northampton flanker gets not just a first cap, but a first start too in England’s back row on the blindside.
Handing first starts to Harrison and Jack Clifford up against proven operators in Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau on other side will be worth monitoring, because if Harrison can make an impact turning the ball over expect him to push James Haskell hard for a starting spot once England land in Australia.
Uncapped talents – Tommy Taylor, Ellis Genge and Ollie Devoto – are all waiting on the bench for their first caps while a number of players in England’s side go chasing international reprieves having fallen out of favour – the two locks Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, plus Marland Yarde and Luther Burrell.
Meanwhile, eleven of the Welsh starting XV who thrashed Italy return, crucially with Alun Wyn Jones back at lock and Scott Williams at outside centre too.
Hopes are far from high for Wales in New Zealand, but that’s more of a reflection of the level of the All Blacks rather on Gatland’s squad, which has talent.
Based on experience and their settled side, plus some extra edge after losing in the Six Nations, Wales should be favourites at Twickenham. A loss would certainly be more damaging for them than for a weakened England.
Players to Watch
For England: It’s been a turbulent few weeks off the field for an apparently upset George Ford following the sacking of his father Mike as director of rugby at Bath. The Fords are clearly a tight family and Ford’s future may lie away from Bath next season, but right now his head has to be on straight and the word out of England’s camp is that he has trained hard. Owen Farrell is expected to swoop in for the number ten shirt in Australia, but Ford has a chance to prove after a rough season by his 2014/2015 standards that he has what it takes.
For Wales: This feels like the kind of game for Taulupe Faletau to grab by the scruff of the neck. Expect one of the game’s great number eights, heading to Bath next season, to test England’s defence regularly with his ball carrying. Does he ever have a bad game? Not one recently comes to mind, with Faletau’s all-round skill set something to be admired.
Head-to-head: The two locks. Courtney Lawes looked cemented into England’s second row for so long, but the impact of Maro Itoje and George Kruis has forced him out of contention. Sunday is a chance for him to remind Eddie Jones of what he can do on attack and of the physicality he offers.
There are few better tests meanwhile for an international lock than going up against Alun Wyn Jones. Injury has limited his minutes on the field since the Six Nations – no bad thing for the man tipped by some to lead the Lions in 2017 – and now aged 30 he will have to be managed better. But he offers some presence.
2016: England won 25-21 at Twickenham
2015: Wales won 28-25 at Twickenham
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 at Twickenham
2011: Wales won 19-9 in Cardiff
2011: England won 23-19 at Twickenham
Prediction: Let’s hope the game itself goes down better than the build-up. Wales to win ‘The Old Mutual Health Cup’ fixture by six points. Don’t forget to watch the trophy presentation!
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Marland Yarde, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Jack Clifford, 7 James Haskell, 6 Teimana Harrison, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Matt Mullan
Replacements: 16 Tommy Taylor, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Paul Hill, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Matt Kvesic, 21 Danny Care, 22 Ollie Devoto, 23 Elliot Daly
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Hallam Amos, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Dan Lydiate (c), 6 Ross Moriarty, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Kristian Dacey, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Josh Turnbull, 20 James King, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Gareth Anscombe
Date: Sunday, May 29
Kick-off: 15:00 BST (14:00 GMT)
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey (Ireland), George Clancy (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)