Expert Witness caught up with Wales' most capped forward, Martyn Williams, to get his view on Saturday's Six Nations title decider.
Nothing salivates the rugby juices quite like the annual clash between England and Wales. Add in the magical ingredients of Grand Slams, Triple Crowns, Six Nations titles and British and Irish Lions selections, and you have a dish worthy of any sporting gastronome.
Expert Witness caught up with Wales' most capped forward, Martyn Williams, to get his views on the forthcoming title decider.
With the bookmakers suggesting the narrowest of margins between the teams, and with England continuing to win, but doing so in a rather ugly fashion, Williams rues Wales' first 40 minutes of the championship:
“The first half against Ireland left me in shell-shock!', exclaimed the former Lions flanker.
“You always expect a tense and tight start to a Test match, but Ireland came out and simply blew us off the park for 40 minutes. You can look to blame, but the simple fact is Ireland played some compelling rugby in that first half.
“Yes, we came back strongly in the second half, which showed great character, but D'Arcy going off with O'Driscoll moving to 12 disrupted their defence. Rarely does a side dominate for 80 minutes in an international, and Ireland allowed us to at least restore some pride, which we've taken into the other games.”
What of the style of Welsh rugby, the 'Welsh Way'? Many commentators have said Wales have moved back to a more attritional game in the last few years. Williams is quick to point out that winning Test matches takes a pragmatic approach.
“In honesty this 'Welsh Way' myth stopped around 2005! If you looked at the current team, we're actually playing a far more English-style of rugby; using our scrum and big forwards to dominate, a well-organised and pressuring defence, with a strong focus on the priorities of field position and possession,” noted Williams.
“We also look to play for the full 80 minutes without taking our foot off the gas and use intelligent kicking across the backline to play where we want to play. Add in Leigh Halfpenny's goal kicking, especially his distance, and it's a pretty simple formula.
“In short, we play to our strengths, and the clash on Saturday will feature two sides of similar style.”
One of the standout qualities of the England side has been its defence. They employ an Andy Farrell-inspired method of combining both blitz and drift defences, whilst Wales' Shaun Edwards-designed blitz is notoriously effective; Williams explains that playing 'without the ball' in rugby is as important as playing with it:
“Both Wales and England have a defensive coach with his roots in Rugby League, so it's natural that our defensive styles are similar. England are superb when not in possession. They pressure the contact area, and both Tom Wood for England and Sam Warburton for Wales are exceptional at disrupting the ruck and slowing down possession;
“England use two quick pillars either side of the defensive ruck to pressure the scrum-half or ball carrier. This is a method very much used at the tackle re-starts in Rugby League. The rest of the defence moves up in a strong line behind, ready to drift, although both teams use their 12 occasionally to blitz out of the line and up to the ball carrier. Wales equally value the importance of playing without the ball, and use the blitz to hit the carrier behind the gain-line.”
“In addition, both teams are very quick to pressure the kickers using their tall men, whether it's the likes of Geoff Parling or Alun Wyn-Jones looking to charge the box kick, or Chris Ashton or George North using their pace to win re-starts. This allows a team to control where the game is played and to keep the scoreboard moving when the opposition transgress.
“It's simple, pragmatic, structured rugby, but it works!', laughed Williams.
With the roof closed, and the atmosphere unique to the Millennium Stadium, Martyn believes that the undercurrent of Lions selection will add extra spice to some personal contests;
“There's a few players playing for their Lions opportunity that's for sure,” he agreed.
“At openside flanker, you have the contrasting styles of Chris Robshaw, who I have been hugely impressed with, and Sam Warburton, who is showing a welcome return to form.
“Sam is the arch-disruptor, superb over the ball at ruck time. Robshaw's work rate and rugby intelligence is outstanding, and either player would serve the Lions well, as player or skipper. It's not inconceivable they could both be the Lions Test flankers, as both are able to play at 6 quite easily. Robshaw has a little bit of Richard Hill about him and that's the highest compliment I could pay; he rolls his sleeves up, gets on with it and makes few mistakes.
“In the front row, there's a huge match up. Adam Jones and Dan Cole, whilst not in direct opposition, will both be vying for the Test shirt, though I believe Wales' secret weapon in the front row is hooker Richard Hibbard, a big unit who is a tough scrummager and combines well with his props to pressure the opposition.
“On a positive note for Wales, I have noticed England have struggled with the new scrum engagement laws, even backing off at times to take the hit rather then engage early.
“Wales have adapted better in my opinion. My only concern is that the notoriously fragile Millennium Stadium turf gives a suitable platform for two world-class front rows to enjoy their duel. I am aware the roof will be closed, so that should at least prevent any rain making the surface deteriorate,” observed the ex-Lions openside.
“Adam Jones is capable of creating real disruption given the chance, and is outstanding in the tight, if less effective than Cole in the loose. You have to keep your props honest so I always used to tell him 'You push the bloody piano and I'll play the thing…!”
“Elsewhere, Mikey Phillips will want to use his bulk to dominate the England half backs, and the centre duel will be scintillating.”
Despite knowing how close the match is likely to be, Williams believes Wales are justifiably favourites:
“We've slowly improved during the Championship and we did well to bounce back after the Irish defeat to beat France in Paris.
“For the English guys travelling to Cardiff, very few will have experienced the Test match atmosphere there. Removing my national hat for one moment, I would say to them forget about the noise, as you cannot do much about it. Just focus on the basics and do your job. Try and feed off the atmosphere and enjoy it. Besides, England always bring a significant amount of travelling support, so I expect to hear the English voices too.
“I also believe Wales have 'been there before.' By that I mean this Welsh side has a lot more Test experience than the young England team. Good Test players have what I call 'reference points', gained from experience, by losing at times and by winning at others. This allows the players to react possibly a little quicker to changing situations.