England v Wales at Twickenham looks set to be the Six Nations decider … though France will have something to say about that. And the two couldn’t be closer matched. Especially if Eddie Jones, as he has hinted, does indeed bring Manu Tuilagi into the 23.
Tuilagi at his best can break tackles and punch holes in the line. Fans will be licking their lips at the prospect of the Leicester wrecking ball in the white shirt and Welsh brute Jamie Roberts on the opposing side.
After only recently returning from long term injury, Tuilagi would almost certainly start on the bench given England’s preference for the Ford-Farrell combination, but he remains a formidable presence.
The big question is whether the old adversaries will cancel each other out.
If anything, Wales have the edge. Not much in it between the front five, but Wales have the better ball-winning back row.
England have the guile of Jonathan Joseph in the centre, with wingers Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell playing well. But man for man the Welsh three quarters have greater flair.
So long as it doesn’t degenerate into a kicking contest, both for position and at the posts, which it may well do, then we are in for a cracker.
England must keep their discipline and not give away silly penalties. They will be looking for Billy Vunipola to have another big game.
But England must do more than just try to muscle the Welsh into mistakes. Wales have an excellent defence and are adept at hitting on the break. In winger George North they have a match winner.
Clash of coaches will be pivotal to Six Nations hopes
The battle of the coaches, Jones v Warren Gatland will be as interesting as what happens on the pitch. Two canny individuals from the Southern Hemisphere who will be plotting and scheming to get one over on each other.
Mind games and motivation are their specialty.
Don’t expect Mourinho-style rants, just deeply thought-out daggers at the heart, albeit in true rugby fashion, mutual respect reigns. Short of a draw, one will be disappointed and each will be eager to ensure it isn’t him.
Gatland has an excellent record in the Six Nations.
As Wales on Sunday have pointed out, since he arrived from New Zealand at the beginning of 2008 to take charge of Wales, both countries have played 43 championship matches. And their records are identical. They have both won 31 times and drawn on one occasion, with 11 defeats.
That puts them comfortably ahead of the next best performing team, Ireland, who have claimed 24 victories. On try count, the English are ahead, having scored 97 to Wales’ 86, although the Welsh defensive record is slightly superior. They have conceded just 46 compared to the 47 England have leaked.
But there’s one crucial category where Wales lead the way – trophies. They have won the Six Nations title three times since Gatland took up the reins – in 2008, 2012 and 2013.
The first two of those were Grand Slam campaigns, while a further title was added in 2013 when Rob Howley was in charge with Gatland on a Lions sabbatical.
In contrast, England have lifted the championship trophy just once, in 2011, when a defeat to Ireland saw them fall short of the Slam at the final hurdle. This time only England can win the Grand Slam following Wales 16-16 draw against the Irish. But England have to go to France and come away with the spoils.
Wales will be desperate to deny England a Triple Crown. That is the incentive for England and it is a big one. As well, of course, some measure of revenge, were it possible, for that Welsh defeat in the World Cup.
England are at home with the crowd behind them. It will be close, but I forecast England to just nick it.
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Image Credit – Sum_of_Marc (Flickr)