When England travel to Cardiff it’s the best atmosphere in world rugby and they’re in for the usual hostile reception but Eddie Jones’ men have got their mojo back and are worthy favourites.
The visitors are now considered the team to beat after showing outstanding form in their opening two games but Wales have won 11 on the spin and that’s not a fluke. They might not be the best Welsh team ever but this crop have already written themselves into the record books.
Jones has done his best to talk people into thinking they’re better than the much vaunted sides of the 1970s but he seems to have been the only one saying it. He has won all four of his previous Tests against Warren Gatland’s Wales but the New Zealander will be quietly confident I’m sure and he’ll relish the underdog tag too.
The key battlegrounds where the game will be won and lost are the breakdown and winning the physical confrontation for me. Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric are a dual threat really in terms of the breakdown and Tom Curry and Mark Wilson, who have both been outstanding so far, will have there hands full but there’ll be a huge amount of pressure on Billy Vunipola.
Without his brother alongside him now making hundreds of carries, as well as countless tackles, a lot more of the ball-carrying responsibility in the forwards falls on him. Ben Moon did a great job in the autumn but England lose a huge amount with Mako missing.
If England can win that physical confrontation without him and react best to Jaco Peyper’s interpretation at the breakdown, then they’ll be well away.
England have averaged 40 kicks from hand per game in the opening couple of rounds and targeted the fact that Robbie Henshaw hadn’t played full back for a long time and Yoann Huget was a winger playing out of position.
I think they’ll mix things up a bit more against Wales but I’ve got no doubt that their attacking kicking game will be to the fore again. You have to mix up your kicking game against a blitz defence like Wales’ with monster line speed to keep them honest and on their toes so they can’t just fly up out of the line.
And, it might surprise a few people but I think they’ll try to target George North, I really do. As many as 36 tries in 80 caps at the age of 26 suggests he’s pretty damn good but I don’t think he’s quite the player he was when he burst onto the scene and I think he can be found out defensively.
Owen Farrell’s kicking game is without doubt the best in the world in terms of the accuracy he brings and I’m convinced he’ll target North. And, while Liam Williams describes himself as a “professional bomb defuser” in his social media bio, he’s more of an attacking full back and I don’t think he’ll want to be dealing with kicks all day.
England have found a recipe for success with their kicking game and it’s far from boring. Everyone talks about the thrilling brand of rugby that the All Blacks play but people often forget that they generally kick more than any other team in international rugby.
Gareth Anscombe, who played for New Zealand at U20 level of course, is a different type of player to Farrell and he has some lovely touches and has been picked because of his potential to unlock England’s defence but he’s been known to have a couple of howlers in him too.
The battle of the fly halves and their ability to manage the game is always pivotal and it won’t be any different in this one.
There is no better atmosphere in world rugby than Wales v England in Cardiff in my opinion. Having played in it at the Principality Stadium, I can vouch for the fact that the noise is phenomenal.
I missed a tackle on Stephen Jones after about five minutes there in 2009 and a few phases later they thought they’d scored. It was disallowed but the place erupted and it’s the one time in my career when I thought ‘holy s**t that’s loud’.
A lot has been said and written in the build-up about incidents that have occurred involving the England team bus and around the ground in previous years and it’s true that there is real animosity there at times. It really is the big one for Welsh fans.
England’s habit of scoring a try very early on, which they’ve done in each of the past five games, would come in very handy indeed in Cardiff in terms of quietening the crowd.
England have won on their last two visits to Cardiff in 2015 and 2017 but they should really have lost a couple of years ago when an errant kick to touch led to Elliot Daly scoring the winner in the corner. It’s nice to know that you’ve won at a stadium before but the confidence of where they’re at right now is a far bigger factor.
Warren Gatland may have suggested that Wales have forgotten how to lose but England might just remind them what it feels like.
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