England v Wales - big match preview
7:54am Saturday 8th March 2014 in Sport
WALES will strut out at Twickenham’s gladiatorial arena tomorrow with no fear and fully confident of gate crashing the hosts’ Triple Crown party, writes Iwan Gabe Davies.
The bookies have England as 8/15 favourites while you can get 13/8 on Sam Warburton’s men to record what would be their fourth successive win over the old enemy for the first time since 1989.
The home side will have a burning desire to avenge last year’s humiliating record 30-3 defeat to Wales at the Millennium Stadium.
It not only deprived them of a first Grand Slam since they won the World Cup in 2003, but the Six Nations title as well which the hosts gleefully prised from their grasp.
The margin of Wales’ victory shocked everyone as they went on to be crowned the northern hemisphere’s top dogs for the third time in six seasons to go with the Grand Slam triumphs of 2008 and 2012.
This weekend’s eagerly anticipated showdown will certainly be far closer than the 27-point margin which separated the two last March.
When Chris Robshaw’s men were overwhelmed in Cardiff 12 months ago, they were clearly overawed by the occasion.
Although this England has improved from last year’s nightmare and is said to be a far better team, no less than 13 of the players who featured that day are due to play some part for them again tomorrow.
And while Stuart Lancaster’s troops were the proverbial rabbits in the headlights at the Millennium Stadium last March, the vastly experienced Wales will be more inspired than frightened at the prospect of playing at Twickenham again.
They have after all won two of their last three Six Nations contests at HQ.
Two years ago they won a thunderous encounter 19-12 thanks largely to replacement centre Scott Williams’ smash and grab try after he robbed giant lock Courtney Laws of possession and full-back Leigh Halfpenny, centre Jonathan Davies and wing George North last ditch heroics to prevent David Strettle scoring.
The England flyer was eventually denied a try which could have drawn the game with the last move of the game by the television match official who cranked up the tension by taking an aeon to make up his mind.
Wales’ reward was the Triple Crown which Halfpenny was oblivious to for some time after being knocked out tackling Strettle.
The bounce of the ball has favoured Warren Gatland’s men the last two occasions the pair have met and Wales’ case will be strengthened this time around by the fact they are missing no less than four top players who featured for the British and Irish Lions in their 2-1 series victory over the Wallabies in Australia last summer.
Centre Manu Tuilagi, second row Geoff Parling, tighthead prop Dan Cole and loosehead Alex Corbisiero are all out of the equation.
They also suffered a significant blow a fortnight ago when their form number eight Billy Vunipola injured his ankle in England’s 13-10 triumph to deny Ireland the Triple Crown at Twickenham.
This weekend’s contest was also robbed of the prospect of seeing two close family members directly facing each other, for Vunipola would have come face to face with his cousin, the Newport Gwent Dragons, Wales and Lions star Toby Faletau, the pair having grown up together in Pontypool before fate sent them on their different paths to represent opposing countries.
Another factor pointing to a Wales victory is England’s propensity to choke on the big occasion.
They may have beaten New Zealand and Australia in recent years (something that has consistently eluded Wales) and drawn away to South Africa, but they have been found wanting when their eyes are on the big prize against the northern hemisphere.
Wales have shown a ruthless streak against European sides while England have a psychological flaw in their make-up.
They did lift the Six Nations in 2011 under Martin Johnson but it was a bittersweet triumph after they were humiliated 24-8 by Ireland, again falling spectacularly at the final hurdle in their quest for the Grand Slam.
Months later, an insipid performance against France saw them crash out of the quarter-finals of a troubled World Cup campaign, a defeat which heralded the end of the Johnson era.
And Stuart Lancaster’s England bottled it at Cardiff in 2013 and were at it again last month when they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against the French in Paris, a thrilling match they more than deserved to win.
Finally Wales should have a definite edge when it comes to the scrum tomorrow.
Last season they smashed the England front row in Cardiff with referee Steve Walsh penalising the visitors constantly.
This weekend, France’s Romain Poite is the man in the middle and he is a stickler, considered an expert in the field.
An England without Corbisiero and Cole will struggle, Bath tighthead David Wilson, only recently back from injury, having a tough afternoon against Ireland’s Cian Healey last month.
Gethin Jenkins, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones, so effective in the 27-6 hammering of France last month, will fancy themselves to come out on top again.
So write Wales off at your peril. Incidentally, victory for Wales will see them move ahead again in the head to heads played between the two which currently stand at 124 clashes.
Since the inaugural encounter in 1881, the two have shared 56 wins each with 12 matches ending as draws.