It is still mathematically possible for any one of four teams to win the Six Nations, so the debate in Europe has been more about individual team progression rather than overall supremacy. It was clear at the outset that there was no outstanding side and that the competition itself has two distinct tiers.
Scotland and Italy will fight hard to dispel this at the weekend .Interestingly, the Scots will sniff an upset against a French side lacking their only two world class players, Fofana and Picamoles. The quirky Saint-Andre, who has hidden behind lack of player availability and poor resources, is in the last chance saloon. Defeat at Murrayfield will rightfully spell the end. As for the Azzurri, they have played some good rugby despite their results, but surely the Irish will be hungry for a Six Nations Championship shot in Paris and won’t foul up in the Lansdowne sunshine.
Talking of which, there will be red faces all round at Twickenham on Sunday regardless of the result as the forecast is for a mini heat wave and the crowd will be in good voice come kick off time .Fortress Twickenham has a real chance to gain some traction as the psychological war of words between England and Wales reaches fever pitch.
Theoretically Wales are favourites, but not so in practice. The experience factor might count sometimes but as England showed against the Irish, pre match preparation is just as valuable. Teams these days spend so much time together in training, that individuals don’t even need much game time before making comebacks from injury – Tuilagi for example could easily have been picked had it not been for the performances of Burrell and Twelvetrees who have earnt the right to continue against the best centre pairing in Europe.
As I survey the scene, I believe the game will be decided on coolness of decision-making in the heat of battle.
Wales need to upset the English discipline and Gatland has already started to wind them up in the press, referencing past results, Lions performances – exclusively Welsh – and has suggested that an England loss would be a terminal setback ahead of the World Cup next year. I suggested at the time of the Lions tour that England lacked individual flair to go along with their collective willpower and so would miss out on selection. That’s not the case now, for example Mike Brown and Danny Care are significantly better operators than Leigh Halfpenny and Mike Phillips ( not even playing and now way past his best ). More importantly, it’s England’s key players that need to stay very very cool in the face of Welsh physicality.
Just another game, said Jack Nowell ,the fresh-faced England winger. I don’t think he means it and if he does then watch out because he is one player that will be targeted along with Brown, Care and Owen Farrell. These three all have angry streaks, as do Lawes and Hartley. Tom Wood is breathing fire and brimstone in the National Press, saying he hates everyone especially the Welsh. He is not given credit for his back row play and it irritates him. In my opinion, it’s the form of these six players that I have mentioned that have raised the English levels of optimism. If Wales can disrupt these six players, they can win. If they fail to do so then they will fall short, possibly by two or three scores.
Put simply, this Welsh team has become a little flaky in my opinion. The halfbacks are very average and the front five were dismantled by Ireland. The back three have misfired, with Halfpenny possibly distracted by his impending move to France and George North seemingly less hungry than he should be at this stage in his career. If England can stop the Welsh centres – step up Luther and Billy – then there is no plan B .Despite traditional pre match plaudits for past Welsh performances, the English coaching staff know their opponent’s limitations.
It is important that there’s no repeat of the, at times, mystifying scrum penalties of last year, when Steve Walsh seemed to have made his mind up before the match that he would punish the England front row regardless.
None of this England team have beaten Wales yet, they need to experience the feeling ahead of the World Cup and yes, they absolutely want revenge for last year. I can vouch for the fact that beating Wales at Twickenham is a sweet feeling, and this is the time for Lancaster’s men to make an indelible mark.
My confidence is mixed with underlying nervousness, because recent history does not support my conclusions. Prepare yourself for a mighty clash. You have been warned.
Which way do you think England v Wales will go? Do you agree with Hallers that Wales aren’t the force that they were in the 2013 Six Nations? Comments below…