Wales v England 2015

Even Brian Moore thinks England have no chance in Cardiff and with their many and frequent injuries there will certainly be chances for Wales to exploit a number of new English combinations, but if there’s one accusation that could be levelled at England and in particular the English coaching team in recent times it’s that they may have become a little stale so the enforced changes could freshen them up. With the furore surrounding the roof (of all things) there’s a few personnel aspects that seem to have gone slightly under the radar.
For a start one can’t help feeling that Warren Gatland has missed a trick by not selecting Gareth Anscombe for his Welsh debut on this game, albeit it would have been off the bench but England’s incumbent number 10 George Ford has 1 very bad memory of Anscombe from the 2011 Junior Rugby World Cup final when Anscombe’s New Zealand U20’s side aka the Baby Blacks came from behind to beat Ford’s England team with Anscombe scoring 18 points. A more pressing concern for Welsh fans in Gatland’s omission is that he has instead chosen Rhys Priestland whose talent’s should by no means be discounted but when Anscombe & Priestland met head to head in the Pro 12 Anscombe scored 11 points as the Blues ran out 21-9 winners. Another worry for Priestland is that when he has played without a creative force in midfield, usually in the shape of Gareth Owen the Scarlets’ attacking play has looked severely blunted this season and the Welsh midfield is a lot of things but creative is not in their lexicon. If Wales need somebody to change the game in the last 20 minutes you could argue an ex Baby Black would bring the little bit of assurance and even swagger needed to wobble what is sure to be a determined and resolute English team. It would seem to prudent to mention in passing that Owen Williams has been very impressive at 10 for Leicester Tigers for almost 2 seasons now but his omission from the entire 6 Nations squad and not just the game day 23 must be entirely politically motivated.
The addition of a rejuvenated Danny Cipriani to England’s match day squad is more than a slight headache for both of Wales’ Fly Halves who would both rather defend against a less dynamic number 10, preferably one who is just going to guide his forwards around the pitch with his tactical kicking a la George Ford. If Cipriani is to be England’s Superman then Wales’ defense coach and Cipriani’s former head coach (and before that backs coach) at Wasps Shaun Edwards may well be his kryptonite, Edwards will surely have a few tricks up his sleeve to negate Cipriani’s potency (if he was going down the predictable route he may well just throw Justin Tipuric on to add to some extra pace to the Welsh cover defence). An outside half who actually challenges the defensive line provides more difficulties than a midfield ball carrier would since Wales’s defensive Captain is inside centre Jamie Roberts and both Roberts and centre partner Jonathan Davies (who have 107 caps between them) are experts on knowing when to drift or blitz and in doing so preventing any incisive breaks in midfield. Wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert have come in for some, mainly unwarranted criticism for perceived defensive frailties but the back 3 players who have scored tries against Wales in the last 12 months are a pretty impressive group; Wille Le Roux, Cornell Hendricks, Israel Folau and Julian Savea have all had a pretty exceptional 12 months so to criticise defenders for not stopping such clinical finishers seems like carping for the sake of it. Fullback Lee Halfpenny is becoming known for his trademark try saving commitment, which as often as not ends up with him relying on his body more than his technique and occasionally results in him popping off the pitch for a quick “head injury assessment”.
With such a solid Welsh defence out wide the close quarters battle between each team’s respective packs will be key and Warren Gatland’s decision to leave out Bradley Davies who has been in a rock in the Wasps pack this season is strange unless it’s a purely politically driven decision (although Luke Charteris who has taken the 3rd lock spot is another who plays his club rugby outside Wales in Paris for Racing Metro). Davies has been an expert at splitting driving mauls when defending for Wasps and along with England’s blind side (although he’s clearly a more destructive force as a 7) James Haskell he’s been one of the main reasons that Wasps sit 4th in the Aviva Premiership. Davies has been key in Wasps scrums too this season in the “engine room” and when he hasn’t been on the field their scrum has looked a lot less stable. Incidentally Haskell will be one of the most influential players on the field and unless Wales can open up the English defence and score some tries the penalties that Haskell is bound to win at the breakdown may well give George Ford the chance to win the game with his boot.
Possibly Wales brightest star in the squad is tight head prop Samson Lee who is set to make his 6 Nations debut in this game, Lee is a fierce scrummager and if the pitch (which has been replaced at a cost of £1.7 million to the tax payer, allegedly) can hold up and French referee Pascal Gauzere can establish a grip at the set piece Lee may well be the cornerstone for a dominant Welsh pack. Lee has good memories of playing against England loose head Joe Marler as his Scarlet’s team met Marler’s Quins in the last Heineken Cup with Lee’s side providing the upset of the tournament as the Scarlets turned over Quins at the Stoop 26-33, although he did get a yellow card in that game so he’s no angel.
Although the roof is a massive red herring the atmosphere inside the Stadium will undoubtedly be electric and extremely noisy (Stuart Lancaster can’t seriously think, or even hope opening the roof will instantly turn it into a library) but this doesn’t always play into the home team’s hands. Wales have been known to feel the wrath of the local fans and particularly against their bitterest of enemies if they don’t get off to a fast start by playing some exciting rugby (which is not always Gatland and Howley’s forte) then 70,000 supporters (we’re letting a few away fans in, right?) will voice their displeasure. I for one hope the home team are lifted by the fervour and noise and not crushed under the weight of expectation, but don’t believe all you read it’s definitely a 2 horse race.

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