Expert Witness: Nick Easter predicts narrow England win over ’emotional’ Wales in Six Nations clash

James While
Expert Witness

After a week of disruption due to the threat of player strike action, Wales v England is set to go ahead in Cardiff in Round Three of the Six Nations.

Saturday’s mouth-watering match is a must win for both teams who are struggling for results and identity under their new and not-so-new coaches at the moment.

Former England international Nick Easter joins Planet Rugby writer James While to discuss the major talking points of the fixture at the Principality Stadium.

Season defining

With only one win out of four games between the two teams and with neither of them looking anything near oven-ready for the 2023 World Cup, this fixture represents the absolute litmus test of the Six Nations for both sides and their best chance of a Tier One win this campaign.

Wales predictably lost to both Ireland and Scotland but worryingly, didn’t impress in either performance; England struggled against the same Scots outfit but perhaps redeemed themselves beating an impressive Italy 31-14 at home. Neither side has really demonstrated where they are with their game plan or style but with Wales making a raft of changes for this match, Easter believes a clear pattern has emerged as to how the coaches are planning to play.

“Warren Gatland has picked a team that appears to have gone back to basics and experience in the pack but he’s thrown caution to the wind in terms of the young backline he’s selected,” Easter said.

“Straight away, it’s clear to me that Wales have stacked their lineout with five world class options in the hope to gain superiority in catch, drive and maul. England have, in my view, accepted that they don’t quite have the tonnage in that area, but with Steve Borthwick’s brilliance in terms of engineering success from minimal jumping options, we go in with a tactic to play five men around a hinge, using a variety of plays such as dummy mauls and breakout moves to keep Wales guessing.

“The outcome will be that I expect Wales to adopt a more abrasive and direct approach to the catch and drive, and that they’ll use the likes of Adam Beard and Alun Wyn Jones to disrupt the England maul – leaving Borthwick looking for more variety off his platform.

“Interestingly, Wales have moved away from the jackaling back-row that they’ve selected up until now; their key breakdown nuisances aren’t there, and I think that Gatland has decided England will be focusing on an aerial and kicking game, with fewer phase plays and on that basis he’s happy to concede breakdown turnovers, not to commit to contact and to maintain as many as possible in the defensive structure,” explained the former England number eight.

Defence tests

“Both teams’ defensive systems are works in progress with the sides both adapting to new defence coaches in rugby league legends Mike Forshaw and Kevin Sinfield – and it’s safe to say that thus far, neither system has covered itself in glory.

“Against Scotland and Ireland, the ease with which attacks got behind the Welsh primary defence and into scramble situations must have been concerning. The area around 12/13 was targeted on both occasions and the structure simply didn’t hold up – the stats show just how many tries were created by runners breaking that first phase D via disorganisation and having the wrong players defending fast channels and it’s no surprise Warren Gatland has changed up his midfield with some big units in the quest to sort out the leaks.

“England’s system has possibly worked a little better in terms of structure but execution has been their issue. Against Italy, the first half went well due to the fact Italy used isolated runners as carriers, but in the second half, they got runners in pods going hard at the midfield and the result was 41 missed tackles and a completion rate of 79%, way beyond what you’d expect at Test level.

“The success of both sets of centres in that defence piece will be absolutely key to the result – for England Henry Slade must stick to structure and execute – he missed 50% of his tackles against Italy and between the midfield trio they leaked 10 errors between them, way beyond what is acceptable at this level.

“In the aerial battle or what we like to now call the third set-piece, I do believe England have a significant advantage with better kicking options at nine and ten and with three superb chasers in their back three. Expect to see a lot of contestables – testing Louis Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams across both sides of the field. Wales will look to control the drop zone and second wave attack through numbers rather than contests as evidenced by their selection and it’s key that England kick with absolute distance accuracy to close off the very real threat of the Welsh counter, especially with the attack support of a very skillful and pacy Welsh back-row trio,” Easter noted.

Emotional distractions

“In the background and build up there is of course the distractions of the contractual battles that Wales have been through. Does this offer an emotional advantage? Perhaps it does – they’ll be well fired up to capture that anger and, with that incredible Cardiff crowd behind them, they’ll throw everything at England.

“However, on the flip side, those distractions have fully taken two days of training field preparation off Wales in a match where they’re going in with a completely new midfield. It’s a trade off of physical freshness and emotional commitment, which they clearly have, against the sheer structural practice that they’ve missed this week, so perhaps the two sides of the coin balance themselves out in this instance.

“My biggest fear for England is a sheer lack of pace in their backline, something Wales certainly don’t suffer from. Ollie Lawrence impressed at centre against Italy, but he’s more of a cruiserweight than an out and out gas man, whilst Slade once again vacillated between the exquisite and the abysmal in terms of his handling, running and distribution, throwing four sublime passes out and another three that bounced around the turf so much that Barnes-Wallis might have been proud of them.

“In a game this close, it might very well hinge on one moment of brilliance that turns the match – a Rees-Zammit or Anthony Watson run, or a Freddie Steward or Leigh Halfpenny chase that creates havoc. Don’t underestimate the ability of Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau and Christ Tshiunza to offer running support to their attack with all three particularly comfortable handling in the wide channels at pace. Wales perhaps have the advantage in that X-Factor transition running, but England have a little more structure and aerial ability.

“The simple truth is that both sides are playing for pride, for new found identity and to explore structures. Performance is as key as result – both teams need to see players working in systems, England will possibly edge the scrum, Wales the lineout and the rest of the battles almost cancel each other out – which makes this match as close as you’ll see.

“I’m happy to call an England win in a close game – 24-16 or something of that nature, but do not underestimate the emotional performance Wales will put in – underdogs against the English is when they’re at their very best and this will be a brutal and exciting Test match of the closest margins,” Easter concluded.

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