England head to Cardiff on Saturday sitting pretty at the top of the Six Nations table and with momentum on their side.
An impressive opening weekend win in Dublin was followed up with a demolition job on France and there is a growing sense that the Grand Slam is theirs for the taking.
Wales, too, begin the game unbeaten and with a clean sweep a possibility but without the swell of expectation given the underwhelming nature of their wins over France and Italy.
History is on the side of the hosts, however. Since the Second World War, Wales have beaten England in the final year of each decade from a 9-3 win in 1949 to the 23-15 triumph a decade ago.
Such is the emotion that Wales-England Test matches generate that form often goes out of the window, and many of the 74,000 fans who pack the Principality Stadium on Saturday will do so in the belief that a home win will follow.
Eddie Jones didn’t wait for an invitation to launch the first few psychological grenades ahead of Saturday’s clash. France had barely started the inquest into their 44-8 defeat at Twickenham when the England coach lauded the current Wales team as the best in history while suggesting that he didn’t treat the Principality Stadium as a fortress.
If both comments were designed to rile those west of the Severn Bridge, the latter does at least hold water. Wales have won 61.48 per cent of their home games since Warren Gatland took charge 11 years ago.
That is not a record to be ashamed of but New Zealand, England, Ireland, France and South Africa all boast higher win percentages on their own turf in that time.
For Jones, Wales hold little fear with the Australian coach having won all four Tests against Gatland’s side since arriving at Twickenham in the wake of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. He also beat them once as Japan coach when they visited during the summer of 2013 – although his Kiwi counterpart was of course with the British and Irish Lions in Australia at the time.
Gatland does not have the best record against England. Having started with back-to-back wins over Wales’ closest neighbours, his side have picked up just four wins in the subsequent 13 Tests.
But under the New Zealander Wales have a knack of winning the ones that matter. They blew England away in 2013 to steal the Championship and their last victory in this fixture was the crucial World Cup clash at Twickenham. Gatland and his staff will have their players prepared.
Justin Tipuric (83) vs Tom Curry (74)
Few players have been as integral to Wales’ 11-match winning run as Tipuric. It can sometimes seem as though more than one player is wearing his trademark blue scrum cap, such is his impact on both sides of the ball. It is no surprise, therefore, that Tipuric has an 85 rating for influence as opposed to 69 for Curry. The Welsh flanker is also a master at securing turnovers and has a tackle turnover score of 85, which edges Curry’s 80. One area where Curry comes out on top is jackaling (90 to Tipuric’s 84) and that is where the Englishman will hope to gain the upper hand on Saturday.
Ross Moriarty (62) vs Billy Vunipola (83)
There are few certainties in sport, but one is that this battle will not be as one-sided as the RPI suggests. Moriarty is, of course, filling in for the injured Taulupe Faletau at the base of the Wales scrum but impressed on his return from concussion against France and will add some physicality to the hosts’ back-row. Vunipola’s importance to England has been showcased in the first two weeks of the Six Nations and his carrying ability adds a different dimension to how Jones’ team plays. It is no surprise that he scores higher for attacking (78 to Moriarty’s 58) and influence (81 to 57) but you can guarantee it will be closer than those numbers suggest this weekend.
Gareth Anscombe (83) vs Owen Farrell (92)
Gatland has handed Anscombe Wales’ 10 shirt and he will be aiming to give his side a fast start at the Principality Stadium. He is a more attacking fly-half than Dan Biggar, who has been named on the bench, and will want to impose himself and probe the England defence. Anscombe had a stinker with the boot in Paris on opening night, but as the RPI highlights he is usually reliable from the tee. His goal success rating of 91 is just one shy of Farrell. The England playmaker is one of the best fly-halves in the world and arguably the most important player in Jones’ side. That is showcased by his influence rating, 88, which is 10 more than his opposite number on Saturday.
Josh Adams (73) vs Jonny May (80)
If Wales are to win on Saturday then they cannot afford to take their eyes off May, especially in the opening exchanges. The Leicester flyer has scored five tries in his last three Tests to emerge as the in-form wing in world rugby, and in each of those games he has touched down within two minutes of kick-off. It is little surprise therefore that his attacking score of 84 is better than Adams’ 78. Worcester wing Adams is a player in form himself, though, and while not yet as prolific in international rugby as his opposite number he has become integral to the way Wales play both in attack and defence. He has an impressive try save score of 82 (to May’s 29).
The breakdown is an area where, particularly in the early years of Gatland’s reign, Wales dominated almost at will. It was what the hosts’ 2013 triumph in Cardiff was built on but with Sam Warburton forced into retirement and Tom Curry making England’s number seven shirt his own, it is no longer something that can be taken for granted.
Wisdom suggests that Wales will need to impose themselves from the off at the Principality Stadium, harrying their visitors in order to disrupt their rhythm while putting pressure on the England defence. In order to that the hosts will need to gain the upper hand at the breakdown in order to give the team’s half-backs the platform to perform when in possession and to slow down opposition attacks when they are not.
Should England dominate the breakdown then it becomes that bit easier for them to execute their own game plan, giving as it does Farrell – and Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and potentially George Ford – the platform to dictate where the game takes place.
The Welsh lineout has not functioned well in the Championship so far and that is an area England will look to put the pressure on. If the visitors can disrupt Ken Owens’ set piece and nick a couple against the throw then the hosts will find it difficult to build momentum.
England’s coach has been keen to put the pressure firmly on Wales in the build-up to Saturday. On Thursday, Jones described it as the biggest game of the Welsh players’ lives as they bid to make history.
The current 11-game run has not always been pretty but victories were gritted out against Australia and South Africa in the autumn, France and Italy this month. Winning is a habit, and as Gatland said in the wake of the comeback against Les Bleus this is a squad that does not know when it’s beaten.
Wales are sure to make life difficult for their visitors from down the M4, but historians will know that their last 11-game winning run was brought to an end by England 119 years ago.
It is England that head into the game as the form team and on that basis they will start as slight favourites. Should Jones’ side impose themselves in Cardiff as they did in Dublin then there will only be one winner.
But the hosts will be well drilled and this is historically a game in which form is irrelevant. Wales will be determined to derail England’s Grand Slam bid, however, to do that they will need to find their best performance of their current run.
England to win by three points.
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