It is extremely rare that Wales travel to Twickenham as overwhelming favourites, yet this is the position the Welsh find themselves in this Saturday.
Ladbrokes currently price Wales as 8/13, and these odds do not look particularly unfair. For England to avoid losing to Wales at home for only the third time in the last 24 years a combination of an excellent English and a below par Welsh performance need to coincide. Despite all this England have more of a chance than many pundits are giving them, and if Wales are going to fail in their pursuit of the Grand Slam then it is likely to come on Saturday.
If England are to triumph this weekend then Stuart Lancaster had to nail his team selection, and he has done exactly that. The injury to Charlie Hodgson is a blessing in disguise, he has been the most impressive of England’s back line but his flaws would have posed serious selection problems for Lancaster. Instead he can now have a potent mix of conservatism and attacking potential in the midfield.
Owen Farrell has proven his worth as a kicker guiding England to victories with his boot, while the partnership of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi is physical and carries a potent attacking threat. Not only that but concerns over Barritt’s distributive abilities are unfounded, he played fly-half for the Natal Sharks in the 2006 season as a stand in for Butch James helping them to the Currie Cup semi final.
Wales possess a midfield of frightening power, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies made Ireland’s centres look lightweight in the victory in Dublin and repeated the trick against Scotland. Lancaster’s selection gives England a chance of holding off the Welsh assault and perhaps even delivering some crucial counter punches. It isn’t just in the centres that the interim coach has proved himself an astute selector. Lancaster’s decision to drop the out of form Ben Youngs was essential to giving England a fighting chance on Saturday,
England have kicked 58% of their possession away, most of it aimlessly, in their first two matches and Youngs has been the chief culprit. In fact the scrum half has been out of form since England’s chastising night in Dublin last year, Lee Dickinson deserved a chance at the starting spot with encouraging performances off the bench in the opening games and hopefully he will be able to build on that.
Phil Dowson has also been relegated to the bench; this is perhaps slightly unfair. Dowson has been forced to earn his first couple of England caps out of position. His replacement, Ben Morgan, will be playing in his regular spot when he starts against Wales, he has impressed at number eight all season for both the Llanelli Scarlets and in his cameos for England. Unlike Dowson he is an excellent ball carrier and should provide England the front foot ball essential to victory. This will be the first time in his career he will have played against a back row of the calibre of this current Welsh crop. Nevertheless, Morgan has shown enough evidence to suggest he can rise to the task.
However, the man he faces off against is the most impressive of this magnificent Welsh back row. Faletau’s rise has been meteoric and his ability fully justifies the rapidity of this rise, Morgan will do well to keep him in check. Finally the replacement of Tom Palmer for Geoff Parling is perhaps the harshest but Palmer knows the consequences of playing in France. Parling, like Morgan and Dickinson has been effective off the bench and is a fantastic line-out option, one of the few positions of genuine weakness in this Welsh side.
Wales are the form team in this year’s Six Nations and it will take more than some well-judged changes for England to achieve victory. Firstly England will have to improve immeasurably at the breakdown this Saturday; they were second best against the Scottish back row in Murrayfield and managed to battle the Italians to a stalemate. The selection of both Scotland and Italy’s number eights as man of the matches, is evidence enough of English failings.
The Welsh trio of Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and Sam Warburton are one of the most imposing combinations in world rugby and if England are going to achieve parity, which is probably the best they can hope for, then Robshaw is going to have to put in the best performance of his fledgling England career. Robshaw is a physical and capable player who has looked a natural in the role of captain, but he is not an out and out number seven. To take on Warburton, who is the epitome of the modern open-side, he will have to muster all his reserves of strength, stamina and guile to match the irrepressible Welshman.
While the backrow collision is simply about England holding their own the set piece represents an opportunity for England to gain the upper hand against the Welsh. Their line-out has been shaky and struggled in Dublin, the addition of Alun Wyn-Jones might give it some stability but England cannot allow the Welsh to gain solid ball at the line out. If they do so it would be to surrender a rare position of English strength.
The scrum must also be resilient for England come Saturday, this a far tougher task than achieving superiority at the line-out. Wales have two Lions in their front row, Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, and will not be easily bullied. Despite this England’s front row has been perhaps the most heartening part of the opening two games and will certainly test the Welsh. It is a major challenge to dominate in the tight five but it is one England must strive to achieve.
If Lancaster expects to fight a rear-guard effort and simply contain the opposition, as England did in Edinburgh then defeat is almost a certainty. The Welsh backs are too deadly and their pack too powerful for England to edge them out in a low scoring encounter, Wales will score tries and England will have to offer more than a fortunate charge down to beat them. They must play with some expansive intent but it must be a cautious attacking vision. If England look to outgun the Welsh it will all end in tears, their backs are in good form and will ruthlessly expose English deficiencies in a straight shoot off.
Instead England’s game must be based around a solid set piece and effective tactical kicking; if the home side can dominate territory then they can look to give the ball some width from a solid base. Quick ball will also be essential If England want to play expansively. They have struggled to produce this in the opening fixtures but this is largely down to English incompetence, a flaw which must be corrected. Lancaster’s young side have proved themselves to be resilient and calm under pressure in their opening two fixtures. If they can retain these qualities in the face of a side with significantly more ability than Italy or Scotland they will give themselves a chance.
If both teams play at their best Wales will win, they have too much fire power and are solid in all aspects of their game. England must be hoping that the Twickenham advantage, a first time experience for much of this young English side, will play a key role. If England can keep pace with Wales then their heavyweight bench, consisting of players like Courtney Lawes and Toby Flood have the ability to be influential when called into action. Wales have every right to be confident but if they are not somewhere near their best this England side has an opportunity to cause a significant shock, and an upset would be a wonderful achievement for everyone involved in this new England setup. One that would surely see their positions made permanent.