England face a difficult assignment when they take on Wales in what promises to be an entertaining encounter in Cardiff on Saturday.
Wales are a side on a mission. Written off by many before the tournament, they negotiated a tricky hurdle in last week’s opening round against Italy in Rome.
In that fixture, Rob Howley’s charges were under the cosh during the first half and trailed 7-3 before a second-half fightback secured them a 33-7 victory.
One player who led the way in that resurgence is flyer George North, who put his recent concussion problems behind him and showed that he still has plenty to offer at the highest level with an inspired performance, but the signs at the time of writing are that he will fail to recover from a dead leg in time for Saturday.
This fixture also presents an acid test for Wales’ caretaker coach Rob Howley who knows that victory against the defending champions will greatly enhance his chances of taking over his current role on a permanent basis when the regular head coach relinquishes the reins one day.
This weekend they face tougher opposition in England, who present a much bigger challenge than Italy. The defending champions might have struggled to beat France in their opener but their head coach Eddie Jones would have gone back to the drawing board this week and ironed out his team’s deficiencies. As he told the press on Thursday: “We will definitely be better.”
An area that has been identified as a potential weakness for the champions is their back row where they field the inexperienced trio of Nathan Hughes alongside Jack Clifford and Maro Itoje.
Big things are expected of Itoje who, despite usually playing in the second row, is a superb athlete who gave a good account of himself in the back row last weekend.
Wales’ skipper Alun-Wyn Jones believes Itoje is a player who should be closely watched this weekend.
“He is a stand-out performer for them,” said Jones.
“His rise has been meteoric when you look at last year and the way he has maintained his form this year. He played at six at the weekend (against France) and that just shows the number of strings he has to his bow.”
As defending champions England are the team that everyone want to beat, but given they are currently on a 15-match winning streak, there will be an added incentive for Wales to beat their most bitter rival.
Two of those victories from England’s run were against Wales in 2016, the first at Twickenham in the Six Nations and the second win was at the same venue in May in a warm-up fixture which formed part of their preparations for what would be a successful three-Test tour of Australia.
Players to Watch
For Wales: If the home side want to end England’s winning run much will depend on the decision making of their captain, Alun Wyn Jones. Rightly regarded as one of the best locks in the business, the 31-year-old showed in trying circumstances – when his side were trailing at half-time – against Italy last weekend that he is a brilliant leader. Apart from his leadership skills, Jones will be expected to take the fight to England at the coalface of Wales’ forward effort.
For England: Although most of England’s players were not at their best against France last weekend, one player who emerged with his reputation intact was Owen Farrell. The Saracens stalwart’s goalkicking is an important part of his armoury but he is also an adept playmaker who will be expected to unlock Wales’ defence, as he did with a fine assist for Ben Te’o’s try against France.
Head-to-head: There will be plenty of pressure on England’s rookie back row of Nathan Hughes, Jack Clifford and Maro Itoje. The young trio only have four Test starts between them and will have to be at their best against Wales’ more experienced combination of Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton.
Although Moriarty is himself still inexperienced at Test level, Tipuric and Warburton are seasoned campaigners who will present a considerable threat, especially at the breakdowns and in defence where they compliment each other well. The respective replacements should also play an important role in this department with England’s Tom Wood and James Haskell as well as Taulupe Faletau of Wales expected to make telling contributions later on in this Test.
2016: England won 27-13 at Twickenham
2016: England won 25-21 at Twickenham
2015: Wales won 28-25 at Twickenham
2015: England won 21-16 in Cardiff
2014: England won 29-18 at Twickenham
2013: Wales won 30-3 in Cardiff
2012: Wales won 19-12 at Twickenham
2011: Wales won 19-9 in Cardiff
2011: England won 23-19 at Twickenham
Prediction: This one is very difficult to call! Both sides should deliver improved performances this weekend and although Wales have home ground advantage, England will sneak in and win by three points.
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Cory Hill, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 Jack Clifford, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Matt Mullan, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Tom Wood, 20 James Haskell, 21 Danny Care, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jonny May
Date: Saturday, February 11
Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 16:50 GMT
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gauzère (France), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)