We have the finale the neutral was hoping for. Wales are set to host rivals England with the 2013 Six Nations title up for grabs in Cardiff.
We have the finale the neutral was hoping for. Wales are set to host England with a Six Nations Championship title up for grabs in Cardiff on Saturday.
Not since 2003 – via a 42-6 win in Dublin – has England claimed the ultimate accolade in northern hemisphere Test rugby. Do not expect anything near that scoreline this weekend as the English, who have a six-point cushion to lean on in the match, face a Welsh XV that has improved since losing to Ireland.
Despite being one step away from the clean sweep, it's somewhat surprising though that England are the bookmakers' favourites to win, especially with that aforementioned points difference in their pocket – a subplot that's set to play a major role in how the game plays out at the Millennium Stadium.
Twelve months ago it was Wales on the verge of the Grand Slam after claiming a Triple Crown in the opening rounds before Italy and France were defeated. It says something about the calibre of this outfit playing under interim coach Rob Howley that they are in the mix despite not firing on all cylinders.
If we cast our mind back to last year's meeting between these two, it was one of new beginnings for England as the likes of Owen Farrell, Geoff Parling and Ben Morgan proved they were Test players. That was an English side low on caps but oozing in potential as Stuart Lancaster's refreshing ethos was born.
Wales meanwhile were a side back from an impressive World Cup and looking set to become one of the favourites for the 2015 event following an expected dominant epoch in the north. They had talent by the bucket-load and a nucleus that included Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts.
The rest is history as they say as Scott Williams was the try-scoring hero at Twickenham.
So how do we expect things to play out this time around? Many aren't expecting a great deal, if any, tries at the Millennium Stadium due to the rather worrying fact for English fans that they have just one try in their last three games while Wales haven't conceded a single five-pointer since Round One. Add in the tension that accompanies a Championship decider means goal-kicking, combined with who best keeps their discipline, will be pivotal on the day.
Wales, to the delight of some, have this weekend been forced to employ the Warburton-Justin Tipuric double act due to the absence of Lydiate and Ryan Jones. Aaron Shingler was initially the man to fill the void left by the injured Lydiate before Jones stepped up admirably and will be sorely missed.
It's coincidental that blindside has also been England's recent Achilles heel as Tom Wood (now eight), James Haskell, Courtney Lawes and then Haskell again have worn number six in 2013. This week we see Tom Croft earn a start as Lancaster makes a bold call due to the healing Tiger's lack of minutes.
Farrell returns to the team after shaking off a quad injury but Ben Morgan remains out, with his strong running having been missed in an attacking sense. Chris Robshaw has been England's main forward threat with ball in hand while his offloading game and completed tackles are in the leading trio.
Dan Cole meanwhile is in something of a personal duel with Adam Jones. And with Lions coach Warren Gatland telling The Telegraph in midweek that “for some players in some positions there are key match-ups that could weigh up the [selection] decision one way or another”, one feels that tighthead prop is under the microscope going into the tour. Of course, Cole and Jones are all but assured plane tickets but their battle is more about the Tests.
Neither player – or for that matter teams – will be thinking further ahead than the 80 minutes in front of us in Cardiff, however, and despite expected commentator and sideline analysts bringing up the L word, Saturday is all about Six Nations rugby. England have been in this nervy position seven times previously since 1990 and lost out in five of those and despite their points cushion, Friday will be a restless night's sleep ahead of this huge finale.
Ones to watch:
For Wales: Much will rest on the shoulders of Leigh Halfpenny on Saturday. With guru Neil Jenkins living every kick behind him, Halfpenny must take all chances created for him by his team-mates. Should he do so then Wales will chip away at that English advantage. Of course it will be worth monitoring how Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton combine in the back-row while the decision-making of captain Gethin Jenkins is also key.
For England: It is worth noting that Dan Cole has been England's turnover king this Six Nations, leading the way with four in the overall standings. It's a real boost to England that he has this extra string to his bow. Consequently his performance along with that Lions side-note we have discussed makes him a key player this weekend. It will also be worth watching the unique quality Tom Croft adds to the party and Owen Farrell's return.
Head-to-head: The battle at outside centre excites as Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi face off outside of two brick walls in the shape of Jamie Roberts and Brad Barritt. Davies and Tuilagi's battle will be one to watch, as will the lock scrap between Ian Evans, Alun-Wyn Jones, Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury. Evans has been an unsung hero for the Welsh while the English lock duo's consistency has also been noted.
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
2007: England won 62-5 in London
2007: Wales won 27-18 in Cardiff
2006: England won 47-13 in London
Prediction: Let's go for it going down to the wire. Wales by 6!
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Mike Phillips, 8 Toby Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Ian Evans, 4 Alun-Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Andrew Coombs, 20 Aaron Shingler, 21 Lloyd Williams, 22 James Hook, 23 Scott Williams.
England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Mike Brown, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Tom Wood, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Croft, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 David Wilson, 18 Mako Vunipola, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 James Haskell, 21 Danny Care, 22 Toby Flood, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.
Date: Saturday, March 16
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Venue: Millennium Stadium