I was penning through the history books the other day and saw that Wales have only beaten England five times at Twickenham in the last 40 years, which shows how the odds are stacked against them. I played against them on six occasions. I was on the winning side in four and lost two, with my final appearance against them off the bench in the 2008 game where they went on to win the Grand Slam in Warren Gatland’s first Six Nations.
One thing I do know is that if they make it six on Saturday evening, my phone will be going straight off. You see, I’ve had a near 30-year association with Wales. I grew up not far from the border, spent a lot of my time in North Wales and still spend a lot of my time in there. I have plenty of Welsh-speaking friends whom I feel very close to, but come the Wales v England game, the old hostilities resume. It’s amazing how many 1am phone calls I find after Wales have beaten England.
I’ll be honest, in rugby circles, I haven’t met many Welsh people I don’t like as individuals. They are the nicest, kindest people you’ll ever meet, but put them together and you know as an Englishman, you’re in for some heat. We can almost feel that hatred – not as individuals – but what England represents to Wales historically.
Perhaps the Celts need that edge to compete. That extra 20 per cent intensity to cope with the advantages that England have in player resources and finances.
My first outing against them in 2002 was a forgettable affair, especially if you were Welsh. England won 50-10 and I was new into the fold. However, for me, it was one of the most important games that led to us winning the World Cup in 2003. Why? Because Wales came out like a boxer going for the knock-out.
For the first 10 minutes, they were camped on our line throwing everything they had at us but we held out. I looked around and just felt this confidence that they were playing so well and couldn’t get over our line. We’d put a real onus on our World Cup tilt being built around our defence and Phil Larder used to say defence wins Championships and he was right. We felt invincible.
That said, you underestimate Wales at your peril. I remember a Donnacha O’Callaghan column in The Times a few years back where he said the players go from Clark Kent in regional colours to Supermen in a Wales shirt and it’s true.
It’s probably where England struggle a bit. They find it difficult to build that tight-knit club environment at Test level. Maybe it’s the amount of options an England coach has at his disposal. Maybe it’s the clamour to pick the new kid on the block. Maybe it’s the geographical distance between Premiership sides and diverse playing styles, but for whatever reason, England teams often lack consistency, whereas the Welsh always pull together. Whatever is happening domestically, you know they’re going to be at the races against England.
It’s not rocket science to say England have an advantage at Twickenham. In Cardiff it’s an oppressive, suffocating atmosphere. If there are any cracks in your mentality, it will be prised open there where you feel like you’re playing against a whole nation.
Manu takes up so much of the opposition’s mental RAM. Any lesser player may have been written off by an international coach by now
As for Saturday, Wales were impressive against Scotland because they simply had to bounce back after that no-show against Ireland. Scotland were in the eye of the storm, as the side were dragged emotionally over the line by the crowd. The question is, can they reach those emotional levels back-to-back? That’s a tough thing to do.
The return of Taulupe Faletau and Manu Tuilagi has added some extra spice to the subplots. The midfield and backrow selections are key. From a Manu perspective, being in and out of the team has hampered England over the years. He’s such a good player when he’s fit, and importantly hungry, he takes up so much of the opposition’s mental RAM. Any lesser player may have been written off by an international coach by now, but not Manu.
An interesting narrative is that Marcus Smith needs Manu to fill the role Andre Esterhuizen provides him at Harlequins. Now for me, Esterhuizen is is the Premiership player of the season, the best international signing for years – he can do it all, but he’s a very different player to Manu. People pigeon-hole Manu. They see this huge powerful Islander and assume his whole game is as a straight up and down ball carrier who never passes.
Manu is actually a really skilful footballer with excellent long passing game and silky offloading skills. Ironically, I don’t think he’s particularly good at being a crash-ball specialist as Esterhuizen can be at Quins, so if that’s all he does all game, as a defender you’ve done your job. His biggest strength is on an outside-arc where he can use his acceleration and power fend on an inside defender. Although Manu has the power to run through people, it’s harder to defend him when he gets those meaty paws out.
Regardless of the number on his back when he’s picked, the real worry for Wales is when Marcus Smith runs across field and puts that hesitation inducing hitch-kick in. He looks like he’s going to throw a pass but more often than not, a gap opens up and he accelerates through it. To get technical about it, if the player outside is Manu Tuilagi, the defender that Smith is attacking has to decide whether he holds to hinge in on Smith, or gets out as the inside defender on Manu. Manu’s hand-off threat often means defenders want to gamble and get out to him early. That’s when the space opens up for Smith. The hitch-kick buys Smith time in making that decision as the the defender will often show their hand. It’s England’s biggest attacking threat.
I don’t think Alex Dombrandt has fully hit his straps in international rugby yet but because he knows Smith so well, he should get the nod at 8. He can be that outlet running that hard line back towards smith that some may have expected Manu to run.
England’s biggest issue is themselves – they haven’t clicked yet. Wales need to frustrate them enough for the voices in the back of their heads to start thinking, ‘oh, here we go again’.
Manu’s reintroduction gives Wales a headache because midfield is already a conundrum for them. It’s not settled. Does Jonathan Davies come back in? Personally, I would say yes, put Foxy in at 13 for his decision making and experience, with Tompkins inside him. He knows Manu well, he won’t hold any surprises. It’s the hardest place to defend on the pitch. There are Welsh fans who will say, ‘all you have to do is tackle him low’, but it’s not that easy defending his power particularly with 82,000 mainly England fans cheering him to the rafters.
So can Wales beat England? Well England’s biggest issue is themselves – they haven’t clicked yet. Wales need to frustrate them enough for the voices in the back of their heads to start thinking, ‘oh, here we go again’.
What Eddie says to the media and what he says to the players is very different. He won’t want to go in on them too hard because he doesn’t want to puncture their brittle confidence. He’ll be challenging them, sure, but doubts could creep in if they don’t find that fluency.
Some have said England have missed Owen Farrell, and I would agree, but it will do them good in the long run because they’ve had to find a way to win without that dominant voice. Faz is very similar to Dan Biggar in that they both drive standards and they’re the conscience of the team but you have to remember Wales are also missing Alun Wyn Jones and Ken Owens, so they have their own leadership void to fill.
I’d put Courtney straight back in. I’ve been so impressed with how he’s evolved his game. He has soft hands, good footwork into contact and while he’s not their primary ball-carrier, as a secondary carrier he’s so effective
The final intriguing area that could tip the game is in the backrow. If I was Eddie Jones, I’d put Courtney straight back in. There’s a temptation to put him on the bench with Maro at 6, but I don’t see them doing that. Lawes is a proper athlete who doesn’t take long to get back up to speed. I’ve been so impressed with how he’s evolved his game. He has soft hands, good footwork into contact and while he’s not their primary ball-carrier, as a secondary carrier he makes metres and is so effective. Wales have to wonder about bringing Faletau straight in or whether they need to pick a big six like Seb Davies. They will be thinking about countering England impressive lineout threat. Ideally you’d want Faletau back in because he’s a big-game player and lifts players around him. To mix silk with steel, I’d consider picking Moriarty for his snarl to spoil England’s continuity.
Whatever the result, and I do think England will have enough to come away with the win, it will be helluva an occasion. Let’s just hope I don’t have to switch my phone off at the final whistle!