Six Nations Preview: Wales & England

Wales

March 16, 2013. No? 30-3. Ring any bells? The night a Six Nations title was retained, and a Grand Slam dream was unceremoniously crushed. Wales v England. The title decider. One loser. One winner. One epic game to remember. Here we go again.

The fierce rivalry between Wales and England wrapped up the 2013 Six Nations championship and it is set to open the 2015 championship tonight. Two years ago, Wales were confronted with a strong and dedicated group of English players that had travelled to Cardiff to claim their first Grand Slam for ten years. Wales had gone down to Ireland in the opening game, but a seven point win over England would be enough to retain the title. Two second-hSix_Nations_Championship.svgalf tries by Cuthbert, and a dozen points off the boot of Halfpenny completely overwhelmed England and the rest is history.

In other words, the atmosphere and tension leading up to tonight’s game is tremendous and it promises to be a colossal opener to this year’s Six Nations. Whereas, England’s preparations have been heavily obstructed by a substantial injury crisis, Wales’ bill of health is as clean as it gets. Gatland’s side is propped with Grand Slam and British & Lions experience as they are faced with an England team desperate to put things straight after being humiliated and utterly trashed last time they visited Millennium Stadium. And in all fairness, this Welsh side picks itself. In line with his traditions, Gatland has shown faith in the same group of players that have formed the fundament of a highly successful Welsh side throughout his reign. Only two changes, with Richard Hibbard and the in-form Saints winger George North, back in the starting line up, have been made to the side that finally put an end to their Southern hemisphere ghost against South Africa in November.

For that reason, Wales goes into 2015 with renewed optimism, enthusiasm, and pride. Their set up in this year’s Six Nations is interestingly the same as when they clinched the Grand Slam in 2005. The matches against Ireland and England are arguably the toughest and Wales’ fiercest competitors for the title this years. The fact that they both have to travel to Cardiff is a huge advantage for Wales. However, they have another three tricky away games to Scotland, France, and Italy as well. You cannot win the Six Nations solely on the basis of the home advantage, but I am sure Gatland is happy to host England and Ireland in the noisy and overwhelming atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium rather than having to travel to Twickenham and Dublin.

Even though they have previously shown that you can go on to win the title despite losing the first game, tonight’s clash between the fierce rivals is still a crucial opening game for Wales. Much more than bragging rights are at stake as this is the last time they will play each other before the Pool A-tie in September of the World Cup. As it is a World Cup-year, it makes tonight’s game against England and the Six Nations in general even more exciting, interesting, and important for all actors involved.

Star player: Leigh Halfpenny
Young player to look out for: Samson Lee
Most tries Six Nations 2015: George North

England

In the past three Six Nations in a World Cup year, England have won the Championship, 2003 and 2011 and to do that for a third time would mean having to beat Ireland, the holders on their own turf and beating Wales, on their own turf tonight with Le Crunch against France as the final game of the tournament as whole in Twickenham. The Autumn series saw the Red Rose finishing strong after defeats to South Africa and New Zealand, the latter being proof of that England are capable in going head to head with the world’s best, with wins over a passionate Samoa and a tired Australia, where Johnny May stood out. Since November, many English Premiership sides have stepped from the shadows of European rugby in to the forefront with Wasps and Bath leading the charge.

Both the above clubs are well represented in the Lancaster’s championship squad, Bath backs like Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and George Ford have all been rewarded for their very good club form with a call-up, like James Haskell for the now-Coventry based Wasps outfit. Whilst cross-code player Sam Burgess needs to settle for a place in the Saxons squad along with Christian Wade from Wasps, probably one of the most exciting attacking in world rugby, questions must still exist about his defensive ability.

Last year’s player of the Six Nations Mike Brown will start without a doubt, his only threat to the full-back sweater being Ben Foden who suffered a horrific knee injury in a European Cup tie against the Ospreys. The wingers are exciting and Jack Nowell of Exeter Chiefs is back in the set-up, inside them Lancaster has very different types of centre to choose from, big tackling Brad Barritt, quick-footed Kyle Eastmod, second-five eight Billy Twelvetrees and talented Jonathan Joseph, it’s a tough choice, but Barritt’s security without the ball secures him one of the berths. The fly-half shirt will be contested between Danny Cipriani and George Ford, both play the ball on the gain line and attack the defensive line, unlike third choice outside-half, Stephen Myler. Ben Youngs and his recent form deserves the starting berth at scrum-half.

As stated above James Haskell should also get a start, captain Chris Robshaw continues to be a subject of questioning regarding his play as an openside, veteran Nick Easter has been going well for Harlequins but Billy Vunipola’s performance against Munster might stick in Lanacaster’s memory. England’s front-five will be physical as usual, youngster Geroge Kruis was impressive in November, Dan Cole’s back from injury and Dylan Hartley has kept his disciplinary record as of late. England need to set a platform so to give the likes of Ford, Joseph and Mike Brown space, and it comes from solid set-piece, and behind champions Ireland had the best scrum and lineout success rate in last year’s competition.

England’s club form in Europe, as seen with the Top 14 is very good, and the meat of the squad is made up of Champions’ Cup quarter-finalists. The Bath contingent could prove be key, especially in the backs. George Ford has his doubters from the tee, James Haskell is the in-form English back-rower, and he needs to replicate it on the international scene, he’s now seen as a senior member of the English squad. Mike Brown will not be the player of the Championship this time round, but his three-quarter partners Jonathan Joseph or Anthony Watson could take it. First up is Wales, with no representation in the last eight of the Champions Cup, but international rugby is that 10% different to European rugby, and I don’t think Stuart Lancaster knows his strongest matchday squad, let alone starting fifteen, yet.

Star Player: George Ford

Young Player to look out for: Jonathan Joseph

Most tries Six Nation 2015: Jonny May

Erik Olsson’s Final Table:

Ireland, Wales, France, England, Scotland, Italy

Illtud Dafydd’s Final Table:

Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, France, Italy