Planet Rugby

Preview: England v Wales

07th March 2014 10:04


chris robshaw sam warburton england wales

Captains: Robshaw and Warburton

With two wins from three and with the Rugby World Cup looming on the horizon, Sunday sees England and Wales act out their 2015 dress rehearsal.

Despite Wales being two-time champions, a loss for Warren Gatland's team would also be more damaging.

England are developing into a force at an encouraging rate. Stuart Lancaster continues to add new weapons throughout his squad to the point where he can almost field two strong backlines.

They will go into the RWC with more or less three qualified looseheads and three tightheads at their disposal. The likes of Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft, Manu Tuilagi, Marland Yarde and Christian Wade are all set to return.

It's a level of depth that with Wales' smaller player pool the champions currently lack, especially at prop, although second-row Jake Ball took to Test rugby with ease during the mauling of France.

Wales may not like to embrace the favourites tag, but it's out of their hands. This side has been together for some time and is seen as a surefire semi-final contender for the Rugby World Cup. Defeating an English team with in comparison insignificant inexperience is therefore expected. So can they live up to it?

Despite their dominance against France questions linger as to whether Warren Gatland's selections and tactics are growing stale. This has partly been addressed by the sparky addition of Rhys Webb, but there's no guarantee that Wales would fare as well as they did when Ball stepped in if say Adam Jones was to drop out late on.

Against Ireland, Wales and 'Warrenball' were comprehensively shut down. They failed to convince at home against Italy. The scoring margin over France was impressive but Philippe Saint-André's team were woeful. Twickenham is their best chance to prove that Dublin was simply a blip, that the Dragon is still as fierce.

That's certainly how Lancaster will have viewed last year's apocalypse in Cardiff - a one-off punch; painful and thought-provoking, but not destructive. The way that Wales obliterated England was incredible, although it's often forgotten that Wales only lead 12-3 with 55 minutes gone. The rest was so outstanding though it doesn't even matter.

England will start this time with five new backs, with Mike Brown on fire in his actual position of full-back, added to four changes in the pack. Now in their third year it feels wrong to keep describing Lancaster's team as new, but the changes keep on rolling.

They will be thriving off the win over tournament favourites Ireland two weeks ago, and the impact of the Twickenham crowd can't be underestimated - the stadium was deafening in the dying seconds of the Irish win.

Wales though bring a settled squad, including 11 British and Irish Lions of which two are returning in the form of Jonathan Davies and Alun Wyn Jones.

Taulupe Faletau, Jamie Roberts and George North provide continued excellence, meaning that minor dips in form for the likes of Leigh Halfpenny can be accommodated. Dan Lydiate has been at his wood-chopping best but bled penalties in Dublin. Some facets of Wales' game just aren't quite clicking as perfectly as we've seen before, but they remain a cut above Scotland, Italy and France.

While England have opted to not rush Manu Tuilagi back in, despite him playing 80 minutes against Newcastle, Wales have brought back Davies with only 105 under his belt. It doesn't smack of panic - George North filled in well against France - but underlines the importance of Davies to Gatland and Wales. Don't be surprised if England send the big runners his way early on.

Every inkling and indication for Sunday points towards a titanic classic, far from the one-sided decimation of 2013. If England are truly always improving, then back up the Irish scalp by adding this one to the collection. If Wales are still the best Europe has to offer, then nothing but victory is acceptable.

Ones to watch:

For England: From zero to hero. Mike Brown's stock with England has never been lower than when we has turned inside out by Alex Cuthbert on two occasions in Cardiff. Now at full-back he is thriving, turning in a beautiful assist against Ireland and scoring in the opening two games in Paris and Edinburgh. He has been the tournament's best player so far, closely fending off the challenges to that mantle from Yannick Nyanga and Peter O'Mahony, and has a chance to cement that title with another strong showing opposite Leigh Halfpenny and Wales.

For Wales: After his armchair ride against France, Rhys Webb wins his first start on the road for Wales. Webb has played enough big matches to not be overawed but this is a scrum-half who watched last year's rout of England in a bar in Cardiff. His rise has been remarkable and the different tempo he offers at the base of the scrum compared to the physical Mike Phillips has been a welcome addition to the Welsh game plan.

Head-to-Head: The two young captains. Chris Robshaw trails Sam Warburton in terms of caps and silverware but the Wales openside seems to have to work harder to win over the affection of his public. Some Welsh fans don't know how lucky they are. Robshaw continues to grow into his role as England skipper with every game and his work-rate often goes unheralded - he was the top tackler against Ireland with 16. Two great players whose leadership is integral to their respective sides.

Recent results:

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 London

Prediction: England are perhaps a year away from peaking, which with foresight is ideal with the Rugby World Cup looming. You cannot understate how much last year's humiliation taught Lancaster, his coaches and his players.

The pressure though is on Wales to underline their status as Europe's best. Not everyone is convinced. It could go either way. Wales by three.

England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Danny Care, 8 Ben Morgan, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 David Attwood, 20 Tom Johnson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 George Ford, 23 Alex Goode

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jon Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Jake Ball, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Gethin Jenkins
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Paul James, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 Andrew Coombs, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Liam Williams

Date: Sunday 9th March
Venue: Twickenham
Kick-off: 1500 (local and GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite (Fra)
Assistant referees: Steve Walsh (Aus), Lourens van der Merwe (RSA)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ire)

by Ben Coles

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