Opinion

Things to look out for: England vs. Wales – The Decider

The only two unbeaten teams meet at the Principality Stadium on February 23rd at 16:45 GMT, in a contest that could ultimately determine the outcome of this year’s Guinness 6 Nations.

This Saturday, we will find out who, if anyone, is capable of winning the Grand Slam. Both England and Wales enter week three as undefeated teams, with high aspirations, as the Six Nations Championship, Triple Crown, and Grand Slam are all still up for grabs.

With no love lost between the two nations, this has the all the makings of a vintage contest between the two sides…

England have looked unstoppable through their opening two games, as they sit at the top of the table with 10 points. Having already scored a combined 9 tries and 76 points, England are odds on favourites to win their 39th Six Nations title. Following their statement win over pre-tournament favourites Ireland (32-20) at the Aviva Stadium, and comfortable victory over France (44-8), many have backed England to win their first Grand Slam since 2016.

‘It remains unclear whether we will see the former Toulon superstar, who would undoubtedly have a significant bearing on the game’s outcome.’

Meanwhile, Wales have quietly dispatched their opponents, defeating France (24-19) and Italy (26-15). Arguably, they have yet to be tested by any strong opposition, but they will look to prove doubters wrong next Saturday against England. Despite entering the tournament with zero expectations, Warren Gatland’s team have embraced their label as ‘underdogs’, and an upset over England would only reaffirm what has already been a thrilling Six Nations Championship.

Will we see Halfpenny?

If Wales are to complete the upset, they might be forced to do so without British and Irish Lions legend Leigh Halfpenny. The Scarlets full-back, currently the sixth highest point scorer in Six Nations history, was released by the Welsh squad last week and did not feature in Scarlets’ 25-19 defeat to Benneton. Initial reports suggested that he would not feature against England, with some even claiming he had been ‘ruled out’.

News broke last Friday that Halfpenny still had not been cleared to play, due to the concussion he suffered against Australia on November 10th that left him struggling to return in time for the Six Nations. In what would be a huge blow for Wales, it seemed that they would have to carry on their campaign without their goal-kicking phenomenon. Saracens fullback Liam Williams – who started the opening two games at 15 – had been expected to suit up against England.

‘the result against Italy allowed Gatland’s men to equal a Welsh rugby record of 11 unbeaten tests.’

Conversely, Wales forwards coach, Robin Mcbryde, dismissed these reports this week, countering that ‘hopefully’ Halfpenny would ‘be fit enough for selection’ against England.

Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac also told reporters that the Swansea-born fullback was ‘very, very close’ to making his return against England. The 30 year-old looked fresh as he resumed training with the Welsh squad, amid a renewed sense of optimism surrounding his availability for this weekend’s clash.

It remains unclear whether we will see the former Toulon superstar, who would undoubtedly have a significant bearing on the game’s outcome.

Building Momentum

Despite Wales’ slow start to the Six Nations, coach Warren Gatland stated following their ‘ugly’ win over Italy last week, that his players will ‘look at the bigger picture’ ahead of their heavily anticipated matchup against England. Despite the nature of the win, the result against Italy allowed Gatland’s men to equal a Welsh rugby record of 11 unbeaten tests. And there would be no better way for Wales to break this record than with a win over England in front of their home supporters in a packed Millennium Stadium.

England will enter this game as heavy favourites, and will take some slowing down. But a potential upset would send shockwaves across the championship, opening up the race for this year’s title.

A War of Words

Despite lauding Wales as the ‘greatest Welsh side ever’ earlier in the week, England coach Eddie Jones dismissed the idea of the Millennium as a formidable place, claiming that ‘it has never been a fortress to me’; Jones is certain to trigger Gatland into some sort of response. There’s another week yet until the game, but the mind games have begun.

In the upcoming week, this is sure to continue, as the most important match of the Six Nations so far approaches.

‘In all likelihood, England will win this game, which, in my view, will be a closer contest than many are expecting.’

Prediction

All things considered, Wales are clearly the underdogs heading into this matchup. Although they have won their opening games, they haven’t exactly lit up the Six Nations with their electric play, contrary to England’s blistering start against Ireland and France.

Could England really come undone against Wales? Here’s a few reasons why an upset could be on the cards:

  1. This could very well be Gatland’s final campaign in charge of Wales, and the Kiwi will look to sign off in spectacular fashion by defeating Wales’ arch-nemesis.
  2. Pressure: Whereas England’s impressive form in their opening fixtures has provoked much speculation of them potentially winning the tournament, Wales have no such pressure on them.
  3. Home field advantage: As a neutral, I do consider the Millennium Stadium to be a fortress. Irrespective of Eddie Jones’ deluded comments, his England team will have a hostile crowd of 75,000 predominately Welsh supporters to answer to. In all likelihood, England will win this game, which, in my view, will be a closer contest than many are expecting. Perhaps Leigh Halfpenny, if healthy, could be the difference. However, I expect England to steady the storm and maintain their perfect record.

England 38-28 Wales.

Rory Jones

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