A sizzling opener under the open roof in Cardiff awaits, as England travel to Wales to kick off the 2015 Six Nations Championship.
Friday night games might not be for everyone, but if you’re going to have one it should be this fixture between two bitter rivals.
England are not just facing a full-strength Wales side and a raucous capacity crowd at the Millennium Stadium. They have their own demons to conquer. Discussion of this fixture can’t happen without remembering the 30-3 hammering they received in this same contest two years ago.
It remains quite comfortably the worst performance by England under Stuart Lancaster – a game where Tom Wood started at number eight, Sam Warburton ruled the roost at the breakdown and England were penalised into double figures at almost world record speed, their final tally hitting 14. Kicking practice for Leigh Halfpenny, who doesn’t need any.
England’s backline whimpered, while Wales oozed confidence. The visitors’ props crumpled at the scrum to roars of approval, Adam Jones taking down first Joe Marler and then Mako Vunipola. Alex Cuthbert punished England’s soft defence with two tries.
Was it a ruthless exposition of who England really were, or a devastating one-off? English minds will have been quick to bury the memory of it, while Welsh fans will never let them forget.
England’s coaches probably didn’t enjoy digging out the tape but have learned from it – hence the bizarre sound of Hymns and Arias bellowing from within the fortress of Pennyhill Park this week, to help those players unfamiliar with the Welsh cauldron adjust to the noise levels. It’s a clever trick, “meticulous” was the word Rob Howley used, but in truth nothing prepares you for matchday in Cardiff; roof or no roof.
Attempts to drum up a non-existent ‘roofgate’ have been wearisome. No rain is forecast for Friday at the time of writing, so why to bother to close it? The roof isn’t some born-in necessity for a match and if an opposition team chooses to leave it open, then by World Rugby laws there is no contest. Wales against England doesn’t need any extra spice, there’s an abundance of it already.
Friday’s game is not simply a Rugby World Cup warm-up however. Yes, it is the last time England and Wales will face each other before September 26, but the personnel on England’s side could be completely different.
David Wilson, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Ben Morgan, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi are all potential starters ruled out for Friday’s game, which is before considering that Geoff Parling and Kyle Eastmond are also sidelined.
England’s depth though has really shone through given that three British and Irish Lions forwards have been recalled to the bench, while their back division possesses players all in good form.
What they lack overall is experience. Farrell and Barritt have been mainstays of England backline since Lancaster took charge and gained plenty of caps, but aren’t around in Cardiff. The pairing of Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph is England’s 11th since 2012, up against the world-class unit of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies who know each other inside out.
Dan Cole and Tom Croft’s inclusion (both are fit but short on game time) along with Nick Easter at 36 feels like an attempt to patch up a lack of Test knowledge. Not a bad idea, considering England’s cap total of 368 is dwarfed by Wales’ 648. But England’s selected side is still competitive.
The onus is on their ball carriers to somehow penetrate that long, spread out Welsh defensive line. Wales’ defensive tactics are no secret, but unless you consistently break the advantage line and suck in those tacklers from the outside, space comes at a premium. England’s second-row and back-row are mobile carriers who along with Burrell have to make in-roads, otherwise England’s pace out wide will just run into traffic. Doing so gives the likes of Warburton, Dan Lydiate and the rest ample opportunity to win breakdown penalties and give Halfpenny the chances he rarely fails to take.
Wales simply look and feel assured. It says plenty that despite his good form, Scott Williams can’t even make the matchday squad. This is a title-winning side, now with added confidence after defeating South Africa in November. Granted, the Springboks were abysmal, but Wales won’t care. The monkey has gone.
So much attention has been on the 2013 drubbing however that England’s 29-18 win over Wales last year has been overshadowed. Halfpenny however hasn’t forgotten, noting that the side failed to live up to their standards as Wales slumped to a third-placed finish in the Six Nations after back-to-back titles.
Was a hangover from the Lions tour, when ten Welsh players started the final Test against Australia, a genuine excuse or a convenient one? There won’t be anything to fall back on this Friday should England win in Cardiff.
Defeat to Lancaster’s injury-ridden group on home soil would be completely inexcusable. Friday therefore is a test of Welsh composure as much as English depth.
Ones to Watch:
For Wales: With Adam Jones now retired, Samson Lee is no longer a young apprentice. Wales’ premier tighthead is still an infant in prop years at only 22, but the potential for him to become a Test stalwart has been spotted for some time. A player of rare inexperience for Wales with only nine caps, and five starts, Lee has big shoes to fill but won’t shy away from taking on Joe Marler.
For England: A new man at 13. Jonathan Joseph has been in flying form for Bath and his partnership with Luther Burrell on paper at least has a balanced feel to it. While others will try to hammer their way through Wales, Joseph will be charged to creatively open up the defence. He possesses real speed and is assured defensively, an aspect of his game he’s worked on closely since winning his first Test start against South Africa in 2012.
Head-to-Head: Captain versus captain. Sam Warburton will win his 50th cap for Wales on Friday, having skippered his country 36 times to place him two behind the record-holder Ryan Jones. Really impressive last November, Warburton remains a great tackler and jackal at the breakdown who inspires those around him. Amicable off the field, he is ruthless on it.
Comparing him with Chris Robshaw, both young men were made captains of their country only a few months apart. Warburton has gone on to win two Six Nations titles, while Robshaw led England to beating the All Blacks. Robshaw isn’t flash but his engine is phenomenally under-appreciated. With James Haskell installed at six to take some of the defensive load – Robshaw made 28 tackles against Samoa in November – the openside should be able to have a greater influence on the breakdown.
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
2007: England won 62-5 in London
2007: Wales won 27-18 in Cardiff
2006: England won 47-13 in LondonPrediction: Friday’s game hinges on two things; how Burrell and Joseph’s defence holds up in their first outing together, and whether through power or skill England can find a way to manipulate the Welsh defensive line enough to create chances, along with the quality of their kicking game. With Wales at full force though and England weakened, the outcome feels inevitable. Wales by 8.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Paul James, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Liam Williams.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jonny May, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.
Date: Friday, February 6
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Kickoff: 20:05 GMT