It’s been a muted couple of weeks in the Guinness Six Nations. The coronavirus has dominated the agenda, leaving a tournament that can reach a crescendo few others can reach looking slightly besieged.
Fortunately, a fixture that dates back 139-years is only hours away. One to momentarily stir the loins of partisan supporters and curious neutrals. Yep, England v Wales – that thunderous epic – is nearly upon us.
The odds favour Eddie Jones’ men, so there will be puffed out chests in West car park before kick-off. As for Welsh support, it will be clicking through the turnstiles in hope, not expectation. So what to make of it all?
Wayne Pivac is a little long in the tooth to play Tom Cruise, but his coming-of-age selection for England reminds you of the 1983 classic, Risky Business.
In a perfect world, Wales may have been able to give Dan Biggar, George North, Josh Navidi and Liam Williams the weekend off to sightsee and pick up some corporate dollar in the gleaming East Stand, thus sidestepping last November’s World Cup finalists, a body of men who can scare the living bejesus out any pack showing the merest hint of fragility.
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Jim Hamilton discusses the ramifications of the Six Nations going behind a TV paywall
But the real world is imperfect and constitutes that all four players must line-up even though there are doubts over their match fitness. With Williams not having played for 20 weeks since injuring his ankle in training during the World Cup, Eddie Jones will doubtless have a twinkle in his eye and be telling George Ford and Owen Farrell to send balls skywards and see if Williams and his compadre North are Test-match ready. Williams, in particular, cannot be blamed if ring-rust shows.
Another pressed into action from the starting whistle is Navidi. The dreadlocked back row has a V12 engine on him but having played just three games since the World Cup, after a hamstring injury against France in the World Cup quarter-final, he is another you could forgive for blowing out of his posterior before half-time.
These forced selections speak of dwindling resources and a coach forced to make-do. The books are balanced somewhat by the fact that Jones has selected Anthony Watson and Mark Wilson, who are both in similarly light on game time. But Pivac is coming to realise high-stakes demand big cojones.
Beware of signing for an English club
The irony is palpable. Pivac has a handful of Welsh players who have chosen, for differing reasons, to play their domestic rugby over the border. What came to pass last weekend can be filed under the law of sod. Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar and Will Rowlands were all selected, as rules dictate by their domestic pay-masters. The result? All three were injured.
Biggar hyper-extended his knee after regathering one of his customary high-kicks and has the best chance of starting (Sam Davies has packed his boots and is travelling up with the squad).
Faletau, so unfortunate with injury over the last two years, is only fit enough to make the bench after knocking his tin hat out until the 80th minute in a pulsating West Country derby, while the highly promising Rowlands left the field before half-time after damaging a knee.
Earlier in the tournament, Pivac let it be known that Louis Rees-Zammit hampered his chances of making a Test bow due to his requirements to return to Gloucester in-tournament. With that backdrop, it would surprise no one if the Welsh management prioritises players plying their trade in Wales.
This is not new news, but the steady trickle of players returning Wales in recent months – Sam Costelow to Scarlets, Sam Moore to Cardiff Blues, Mat Protheroe to Ospreys and before that Ross Moriarty (Gloucester to the Dragons) and Josh Adams (Worcester Warriors to Cardiff) suggests it’s not just hiraeth at play.
There are heavy hints more may yet repatriate, with Nick Tompkins heavily linked with the Scarlets, but the message is clear. Play outside the fold and see your Test ambitions diminish.
Headscratchers and crowd-pleasers
There were a few selections that needed steady percolation. With Wyn Jones crocked, Rob Evans was recalled. His ebullience and experience may just be the fillip Wales need to neuter the rambunctious Joe Marler at scrum time.
At some point, Twickenham’s foundations will shake to the core when Rhys Carre enters the fray. Tipping the scales at 6ft 2in and 21 stone, Carre’s Test education will continue and his ball-carrying will be needed more than ever as a counterpoint to Ellis Genge’s rapturous introduction.
Aaron Shingler’s selection on the bench is a curious one. Is he now seen as second row cover? No one would expect Jake Ball go for 80 minutes but Shingler, a lighter and more mobile replacement, may be used to vie with Courtney Lawes at the tail of the line. Pivac seems to be giving himself options to keep the English pack moving.
In the backline, spare a penny as well for the thoughts of Gareth Davies. The Scarlet was ineffective against France and has been jettisoned from the squad altogether, giving Tomos Williams a start and Rhys Webb another shot at redemption after a sluggish return to Test rugby.
Pivac rates the experienced Lion for his communication and game management and his move to Bath seems to have borne fruit. It’s a bold move at No9 and will serve as a notice no player is irreplaceable, even his 53-cap ex-regional No9.
It is pleasing, however, to see the continued faith put in Tompkins. The Saracens midfielder has been Wales’ most effective back in the tournament to date and while Manu Tuilagi is hardly the most welcoming of opposing numbers, the Leicester Tiger should not forget about his opposing number’s speed and handling skills. A match-up with Henry Slade in the latter stages will be one for the aesthetes.
Watch out, Wales? https://t.co/rToMaC0MAk
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 5, 2020
Can England go back-to-back with a world-class performance?
This may be filed in the clutching at straws department but while Wales have insecurities, the suspicion that England can veer from a swaggering, menacing machine one week to entirely fallible outfit the next lurks deep in their psyche. They decimated Ireland in last year’s Six Nations before blowing a 31-0 lead against Scotland weeks later. They shone so brightly against the All Blacks before withering against an adamantine Springbok side a week later in Japan.
Jones admitted as much, saying it was difficult to replicate emotional intensity as if it were a limitless resource. There is also a suggestion that Jones’ men struggle to think quickly on their feet when things don’t go to plan. This was highlighted England were found wanting in Paris five weeks ago. They trailed 24-0 at one point after being blinded by a reborn Stade de France crowd and self-inflicted flawed selection.
With no Italy game to round off the tournament next weekend and still smarting from last year’s loss to Wales in the Six Nations, Jones knows England owe Wales one and he will be desperate his team doesn’t have an off day. To the neutral, if they turn up, they look a foreboding opponent from pretty much every angle. Pob lwc, Wayne!
He hasn't played any rugby since RWC quarters in Oita https://t.co/QSHtdIIJzm
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 5, 2020
Battered and bruised, but Wales and Pivac will emerge stronger
While you can expect the usual hoopla if Pivac fails to register a win in TW2 – Wales haven’t lost three consecutive Six Nations games since the 2007 Six Nations – for those of a measured and cerebral mien, there should be no panic, no knee-jerk reaction.
Of course, the odds are stacked against Wales. They have registered only two wins in their last ten at England’s HQ but if you look at the bigger picture, Welsh rugby is in good health.
Like any parish, there are issues. An emergency EGM set for later this month over funding plans community clubs will be an unwelcome distraction and the regional game stirs the loins of too few people, with the move to Premier Sport in the PRO14 precipitous at best.
But the WRU’s annual revenue is hovering not far south of £100million, comfortably above that of Ireland and Scotland, and a glut of players are being lured back to the Welsh game after the WRU implemented its controversial 60-cap rule.
More room for financial cheer may be in the offing with the rather large financial carrot dangled by CVC that could plump up the union coffers to the tune of nearly £62m if and when the CVC investment into the Six Nations is confirmed. This is on top of the £35m that the union announced the PRO14 had banked in the autumn.
There is proof that while trading winds are stiff, Welsh rugby is on a firmer footing than it has been for much of its professional life. If Wales lose, and fans trudge into the hostelries to drown their sorrows, remember that sunnier climes lie ahead.
WATCH: Wayne Pivac sets the scene ahead of Wales’ trip to Twickenham
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