England v Wales preview: Red Rose to extend Welsh woe and reign supreme at Twickenham

Colin Newboult
England scrum-half Alex Mitchell and Wales scrum-half Tomos Williams.

England scrum-half Alex Mitchell and Wales scrum-half Tomos Williams.

There has, rather unusually, been a distinct lack of spice in the build-up to this England v Wales fixture, so let’s hope it is all reserved for game day at Twickenham.

Warren Gatland briefly attempted to stir the pot by effectively telling all unpatriotic Welshmen to ‘piss off’ if they didn’t want to play for them, referring to Immanuel Feyi-Waboso’s defection to the Red Rose, but that has been about it.

Of course, Gatland has not had motormouth Eddie Jones to feed off over the past two campaigns, with the mild-mannered Steve Borthwick now in the England hotseat. In fact, Borthwick would make a fine cricketer, given how straight his bat is against every delivery from the media.

This English side tends to save all their talking for the pitch nowadays, but they still need to add a fair few sentences to the speech if they are to achieve their aim of becoming one of the world’s best.

The victory over Italy was a reasonable opener, given the new coaches, new players and new style employed in both defence and attack. They were also met by a vastly improved Azzurri outfit, who on that evidence will test the resolve of several more sides in the 2024 Six Nations.

Wales themselves will be nervous about facing Gonzalo Quesada’s men in the final round of the tournament, especially if they succumb to defeat this weekend.

Gatland has picked a young squad for this competition – led by 21-year-old Dafydd Jenkins – and it showed last week as they wilted in the cauldron of the international game. However, as bad as they were in the first half against Scotland, the Welshmen can take plenty from how they responded in the final 35 minutes.

Wales will very much use the momentum generated from that effort and attempt to bring it to the ‘home of rugby’. They love nothing more than beating their fiercest rivals, and the visitors go into this clash in a much more positive mood than they did when 27-0 down in Round One.

The question is whether they can, or indeed want, to repeat that style. In effect, they threw the game plan out of the window – given the situation they were in – and ran the ball from everywhere.

It is unlikely that Gatland’s men will do the same again this weekend, but the head coach has made the right changes to tidy up the areas which went wrong with Elliot Dee starting at hooker and Tomos Williams coming in at scrum-half.

They should be better prepared than last week but, equally, so will England, who no doubt have benefited from another week together. The game may not be of high quality but these clashes between two bitter rivals always bring the fire and intensity, so expect a fascinating duel.

Where the game will be won

Wales’ problems were numerous against Scotland in the first half, but they never got a platform because their kicking game was completely awry. While they changed tack in the second period when the game appeared to be over as a contest – regularly running from deep – that is unlikely to work at Twickenham.

Gatland knows that they need structure and to use the boot effectively to get them into opposition territory. Scrum-half Williams, who was impressive last week, has that task and Wales will hope his fine form continues versus Saturday’s hosts. He will have a tough challenge against England, who have fine game controllers in Alex Mitchell and George Ford, while Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Freddie Steward also provide excellent kicking options.

The Red Rose will no doubt put plenty of ball into the sidelines so they can attack the Welsh lineout, which was flaky last weekend. That is another area that the visitors need to improve on and is absolutely key if they are to give themselves a chance of claiming the win.

If Wales’ set-piece can function then that will aid Williams at scrum-half and allow openside Tommy Reffell to become even more influential. Reffell was excellent in Round One, even in the first half, but their lineout woes often wasted his good breakdown work. However, he could feast this week against Borthwick’s men who, let’s be honest, are missing true contact area specialists.

Equally, in Rome, England showed an intention to be slightly more expansive this year and that may play into the hands of the Welsh jackallers. The home side’s cleaners will need to be accurate to stop the visiting fetchers getting over the top of the breakdown.

Last time they met

What they said

England boss Borthwick is hoping to build on last weekend’s “promising start” as they seek to go two from in the 2024 Six Nations.

“While last weekend’s performance was far from perfect, it was a promising start,” he said.

“It was a really promising start for the less experienced guys and the younger guys.

“There’s a blend of leadership and experience. It’s important to keep that blend and build cohesion and continuity.

“The players will get better and better the more they are playing together.”

Wales head coach Gatland is not worried by the Twickenham factor and insists that their visit to London holds no “trepidation”.

“The first four times I went there, we won – three Premiership finals and a Heineken Cup final. I don’t find it intimidating at all!” he said.

“It is great when you come in through the gates and everyone is outside and you’ve got the fans there. It is a great stadium to enter.

“I love the atmosphere, and it is even more special if you can walk away with a win. That is not easy to do.

“It is a stadium that I have loved going to. For me, it doesn’t hold any trepidation.

“For us, it is about starting well and stopping the crowd singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ too early. Silence them a bit – that becomes an important factor.”

Players to watch

England will look to target the Wales front five this weekend, especially the lineout where Maro Itoje could be a real threat. He and Ollie Chessum enjoyed their day against Italy in Round One, often disrupting the Azzurri ball, and they will seek to repeat that effort when they take on Gatland’s men.

The Welsh managed to tidy up the set-piece in the second period, with hooker Elliot Dee being far more accurate than Ryan Elias with his throwing. Ultimately, the visitors do not lack for decent jumping options, but Adam Beard and Dafydd Jenkins, alongside their lifters, will need better matches at Twickenham.

If they are then that will make Ioan Lloyd’s job much easier at fly-half. In for Sam Costelow, the fleet-footed playmaker enhanced his reputation by playing his part in a stunning comeback. Lloyd is incredibly quick and enjoys being given the freedom to play expansively, which was perfect for the situation last week, but he will likely have to reign that in on Saturday.

The kicking game is so important, especially in Tests, and there are concerns that he doesn’t yet have the control to dictate matches at this level. He has plenty of experience alongside him in Williams, but there aren’t too many kicking options in the outside channels, with only Cameron Winnett being able to help the fly-half out in that regard.

If Wales make it easy for England to counter-attack then Borthwick’s men appear more willing to chance their arm this year. Tommy Freeman was very impressive last week and will be a threat once again, but it is an even bigger game for Elliot Daly, who lacked potency against Italy despite scoring a try.

Without the likes of Ollie Lawrence, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Arundell, it is a backline short of pace and power. Daly was once among the quickest players in the Premiership, but he looked surprisingly lethargic in Rome and they need him to step up, otherwise the Welsh fetchers, such as Tommy Reffell, will have a field day.

Main head-to-head

Kicking always seems to be a decisive factor in games between England and Wales, which means the battle at scrum-half will be crucial. To be perfectly honest, we always doubted whether Alex Mitchell could control a game at international level, but he has very much proven us wrong. Our accusation of him being a highlights reel player, rather than a true Test match animal, has been well and truly dispelled.

He was always going to be strong around the fringes but his box-kicking, both in terms of length and accuracy, has been the real surprise. Mitchell will be challenged by the experienced Tomos Williams, who has enjoyed an excellent 12 months. In a similar fashion to Saturday’s opponent, Williams’ strength comes in his running game, but he also has a good all-round skill set, which includes a fine kicking game.

The difference, though, may well come in the pressure they feel during the game and, by that, we mean the number of different options each team has. Williams will have to do much of the work, given the inexperience of Lloyd and Winnett, while the Red Rose have Steward, Slade, Daly and obviously Ford.


Elements of England’s performance was good against Italy and you could see signs of progression in terms of the game plan, even if their execution was off on several occasions. That was not the case for Wales in the first half of their clash, but you have to commend their spirit, as well as the ability to rectify those problems, to almost snatch the win against Scotland.

Ultimately, the Red Rose have the greater quality, but we’re not sure they have the capabilities of running away from their opponents quite yet and it will therefore be a close game. Matches between these teams have also been tight recently, especially at Twickenham, and we expect the same on Saturday. England by five points.

Previous results

2023: England won 19-17 in London
2023: Wales won 20-9 in Cardiff
2023: England won 20-10 in Cardiff
2022: England won 23-19 in London
2021: Wales won 40-24 in Cardiff
2020: England won 24-13 in Llanelli
2020: England won 33-30 in London
2019: Wales won 13-6 in Cardiff
2019: England won 33-19 in London
2019: Wales won 21-13 in Cardiff
2018: England won 12-6 in London

The teams

England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Tommy Freeman, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Fraser Dingwall, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Alex Mitchell, 8 Ben Earl, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Ethan Roots, 5 Ollie Chessum, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Will Stuart, 2 Jamie George (c), 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Alex Coles, 20 Chandler Cunningham-South, 21 Danny Care, 22 Fin Smith, 23 Immanuel Feyi-Waboso

Wales: 15 Cameron Winnett, 14 Josh Adams, 13 George North, 12 Nick Tompkins, 11 Rio Dyer, 10 Ioan Lloyd, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Aaron Wainwright, 7 Tommy Reffell, 6 Alex Mann, 5 Adam Beard, 4 Dafydd Jenkins (c), 3 Keiron Assiratti, 2 Elliot Dee, 1 Gareth Thomas
Replacements: 16 Ryan Elias, 17 Corey Domachowski, 18 Archie Griffin, 19 Will Rowlands, 20 Taine Basham, 21 Kieran Hardy, 22 Cai Evans, 23 Mason Grady

Date: Saturday, February 10
Venue: Twickenham Stadium
Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Referee: James Doleman (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Hollie Davidson (Scotland)
TMO: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand)

READ MORE: Expert Witness: Adam Jones highlights where Wales ‘cannot beat England’ and makes bold Scotland prediction