Wales v England: Six Nations preview as Red Rose set to edge the wounded Welsh in tense encounter in Cardiff

Colin Newboult

After the trauma of the past week, the Welsh players can finally focus on the rugby.

It has been a tumultuous time for the sport in the country with players concerned over their future due to the Welsh Rugby Union’s inability to agree a budget with the regions. Mentally it has taken a massive toll and, as a result, the playing side of things has been put on the back burner.

Saturday’s match was in serious doubt of being called off – the players setting a deadline of Wednesday for matters to be resolved – but at the 11th hour a compromise deal was agreed and it could go ahead.

With all that disruption, it raises the question of how the Welshmen could find the resolve to put in a performance and give their suffering fans something to cheer.

It is worth remembering that Welsh rugby is not just in crisis off the field but on it as well, with the team putting in poor displays against Ireland and Scotland at the start of this Six Nations. Perhaps the off-field trauma played a part in those results and that the relief of seeing this saga dissipate – for now – will see a rejuvenated Test team, but it will still be a mammoth task to produce a worthy display this weekend.

However, if there is one side that can bring the best out of Wales then it is their oldest enemy, England. The Red Rose, who themselves have been in decline for several seasons, have not won in Cardiff for six years and have struggled to recapture the form which saw them reach the 2019 World Cup final.

They have made small improvements under Steve Borthwick but the new head coach has yet to truly stamp his mark on the squad. No doubt this English outfit are vulnerable but so, obviously, are the hosts, which sets up a fascinating contest at the Principality Stadium.

Where the game will be won

Physically Wales simply haven’t matched either Ireland or Scotland, so they need to be able to handle England’s big ball carriers. The likes of Caelan Doris and Dan Sheehan in particular enjoyed going through the heart of that Welsh defence, which will have been noted by the likes of Ellis Genge, Lewis Ludlam and Ollie Lawrence.

With the ball they haven’t been great either and opposing rearguards have found it far too easy to dominate the collisions and control the game. Looking at the teams, the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Taulupe Faletau and newbie Mason Grady can all impose themselves and put the visitors under pressure with and without the ball. It’s just about mindset, something they tend to get right when facing the English.

Equally, the kicking game has always been important when these two have clashed. It has generally been a strength for the Red Rose but Wales have matched up well when the teams have faced off in Cardiff, with the half-backs accurate out of hand and the back three disarming the Englishmen’s bombs.

Last time they met

What they said

Wales boss Warren Gatland admits that they need to put the events of the past week behind them so that they can look ahead to Saturday’s game with positivity.

“The focus needs to be purely on the next few days, training well, drawing a line in the sand with what has happened and then bringing out the passion, history and expectation that comes with an England-Wales fixture,” he said.

“I was asked by the players not to name the team on Tuesday, and that was about as much as protecting them as well.

“If the game did get called off with naming a 23, then all of a sudden those 23 players are in the spotlight and almost being accused of calling the game off.

“So it was as much about protecting the players in the squad until we had confirmation that the game was going ahead.”

England head coach Borthwick has “sympathy” with the Welsh players but has urged his team to put that to one side and show their usual aggression and sympathy on the field.

“Myself and everybody with the England team, we have incredible sympathy for what the Welsh players have gone through,” Borthwick said.

“No player, no professional athlete, should have to deal with that level of uncertainty and anxiety. We really sympathise with them.

“From our point of view, we’ve focused on the game and being the best prepared team we possibly can be. Other stuff we can’t control, so we just concentrate on what we can do.

“To be part of a fixture like this, it’s terrific. We embrace it and we can’t wait to get down to Cardiff. There has been a buzz around training all week.”

Players to watch

Wales have made mass changes from game to game, so there is no doubt pretty much the entire 23 are due a performance. After the youth were given their chance against Scotland, Gatland is pinning his hopes on experience this time around. In a front five which looks pretty underpowered and unathletic, there is a big onus on Alun Wyn Jones to reproduce the performance he displayed against Australia.

The world record cap holder appeared in decline in 2022, with Wayne Pivac preferring him as an option off the bench, before that stunning effort against the Wallabies. Had Jones once again defied age? Well, not if the match with Ireland was anything to go by. It will therefore be a fascinating test of the lock’s capabilities, particularly since he rarely has a bad game against the English.

On the other side of the experience spectrum is Cardiff centre Mason Grady, who is making his Test debut. A gargantuan unit at 6ft 5in and over 17st, he is even bigger than George North – the man he is replacing. The 20-year-old is a tremendous athlete and will obviously give them physicality in the midfield, but he also has an excellent skill set. Grady likes to off-load, bringing other runners into the game, and we are excited to see how he goes this weekend.

The Welsh youngster comes up against England’s powerhouse Ollie Lawrence, who had an impressive game in Round Two. He was used effectively off first phase ball against Italy and the Red Rose will once again use him as a way of getting over the gain line. Alongside Henry Slade, who will look for an improved display in Cardiff, they will attempt to take advantage of Wales’ callow centre partnership.

If they are to isolate defenders, Jack van Poortvliet will have a big role to play. The Leicester Tigers man is a huge talent but he has struggled to find his best so far in this Six Nations. His delivery hasn’t been the sharpest in this tournament, while his usually reliable box-kicking hasn’t been quite up to scratch. With aerial threats Anthony Watson, Max Malins and Freddie Steward in the team, they have weapons to exploit the Welsh defence if Van Poortvliet can get it right.

Up front, England certainly have the edge but Alex Dombrandt needs a big game. Having dropped Billy Vunipola from the wider squad and not given Sam Simmonds a run in the 23, Borthwick evidently sees Dombrandt as his first choice number eight, but his performances have generally been underwhelming. He was better against Italy, but the 25-year-old certainly needs to step it up another level this weekend.

Main head-to-head

Wales have brought Justin Tipuric back into the XV and he has a big job on his hands, especially after a disappointing outing against Ireland in the first match. Following that result, the Osprey was dropped for their next game against Scotland, but he has returned as they face their great rivals. The 33-year-old will provide a threat at the breakdown but he is also incredible useful at the lineout and will roam in the wider channels, looking to get involved.

Up against him is the powerful Jack Willis. One of the best at the contact area, he caused Italy all sorts of problems in Round Two and will look to do the same to Wales on Saturday. Willis is also a useful ball carrier, especially in the tighter exchanges, and his abilities can help England control the gain line battle. It is great to see him back fit and this is a chance for him to really nail down that openside shirt.


Judging by how the respective campaigns have gone for both sides, it should be an absolute no contest. While the Red Rose haven’t been great, they certainly have more cohesion in their squad than the Welsh. However, Wales pretty much always turn up against their rivals in Cardiff, irrespective of their issues – either on or off the field – so it will surely be a tight one. England by five points.

Previous results

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
2017: England won 21-16 in Cardiff

The teams

Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Josh Adams, 13 Mason Grady, 12 Joe Hawkins, 11 Louis Rees-Zammit, 10 Owen Williams, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Christ Tshiunza, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Gareth Thomas
Replacements: 16 Bradley Roberts, 17 Rhys Carre, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Dafydd Jenkins, 20 Tommy Reffell, 21 Kieran Hardy, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Nick Tompkins

England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Lawrence, 11 Anthony Watson, 10 Owen Farrell (c), 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Alex Dombrandt, 7 Jack Willis, 6 Lewis Ludlam, 5 Ollie Chessum, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Ben Curry, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Henry Arundell

Date: Saturday, February 25
Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant Referees: Andrew Brace (Ireland), Pierre Brousset (France)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)

READ MORE: Five storylines to watch ahead of Round Three as Wales and England clash after fraught week