RWC 2015 England vs Wales: English need forward revival to win war of neighbours

Hosts’ pack must raise game on white-hot night against Wales

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The Independent Online

There is nothing more feral in the whole of the union game than a set-to between England and Wales. When the importance of the contest is multiplied by a factor of thousands – when a local dispute between antagonistic neighbours suddenly takes on a global significance because of its World Cup status – the ingredients are in place for a sporting version of The Really Wild Show.

You want intensity? Look no further than Owen Farrell, freshly reinstalled as England’s outside-half and a full metal jacket merchant if ever there was one. He was suitably snarly on Friday, albeit in a quietly spoken kind of way. Asked whether he had been taken aback by the generally negative reaction to his promotion ahead of his great friend and rival George Ford, he said: “What reaction? Whose reaction? People can say what they want. It’s the people inside the camp who matter to me, not those  outside the camp.” Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

Rugby has changed, almost beyond the boundaries of  recognisability, since the good old, bad old days of free-for-all fist fights the moment the Severn Bridge was crossed in either direction. The all-seeing eye of the television camera and the ever more puritanical approach of the game’s image-conscious administrators make it most unlikely that tonight’s pool game at Twickenham will have much in common with the notorious Five Nations matches in 1980 and 1987, although it will be no great surprise if there are references to Margaret Thatcher, pit closures and English arrogance during the final Welsh team talk in the minutes before 8pm.


But if things do not kick off straight from the kick off, so to speak, the game will still be terribly hard. Just hard in a different way, that’s all. The England forwards, stung by suggestions that they have turned into horizontal pacifists when they should be at their most abrasive, will surely go after their opposite numbers at close quarters, encouraged by the knowledge that Jérôme Garcès, the French referee, has taken a dislike to the scrummaging of the Welsh front row in the past. And if that happens, the visitors will seek to compensate by roughing up the hosts in the loose, where the temperature is likely to be off the scale.

Garcès may turn out to be as important a figure as the unashamedly aggressive Farrell or the deeply committed Welsh outside-half Dan Biggar, who, it is worth emphasising, must shoulder the marksmanship duties in the absence of the stricken Leigh Halfpenny and will therefore have to match his rival’s uncanny ability to operate at molten heat when the ball is in play and then send his emotions into deep freeze when aiming at the sticks.

As a general rule, French officials are superhot when it comes to refereeing the scrum, as Gethin Jenkins, the three-tour Lion on the loose-head side of the Welsh front row, discovered to his acute discomfort just a few months ago. Garcès himself was on Jenkins’ case when England triumphed 21-16 in Cardiff at the start of this year’s Six Nations Championship – the red-rose forwards won the set-piece battle hands down that night – and there must be a high degree of nervousness in the visiting camp as a consequence, especially as Farrell is more than capable of delivering a 100 per cent return from the kicking tee.

England's scrum needs to step up against Wales

Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, acknowledged on Friday that the hosts were more than happy with the selection of Garcès for this game, although he avoided making a big deal of the scrum issue, which was probably wise. “We think Jérôme is a fine referee – he has a great temperament,” he said. “His control of the Japan-South Africa match last weekend was very clinical. What I liked about him was the way he made the breakdown clean by removing the bodies. That will be important in this game because the tackle area will be so intense.”

Unless Rowntree’s forwards put themselves in Garcès’ good books and win the penalty count, England will be under serious threat. To do that, they will need  to generate far greater momentum and show infinitely more control than they did last time out, against Fiji on opening night.

In that game, they scrummaged poorly, struggled to recycle possession on the floor against Akapusi Qera and his merry band of turnover specialists and played some pretty flaccid stuff all round until the likes of Joe Launchbury and Billy Vunipola materialised off the bench. A similarly conciliatory showing tonight will play straight into the hands of Sam Warburton, Toby Faletau and the magnificent Lions Test lock Alun Wyn Jones, the ultra-reliable go-to man in the Wales pack.

Jones is the best second-rower on either team sheet, by quite some distance, so England will need something special from their own boilerhouse brigade. Unfortunately for them, there has been nothing special about Courtney Lawes for a while. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Northampton “enforcer” is in dire need of a rocket, fired in the direction of a place where the sun rarely shines.  England simply cannot afford the inconsistency that marks his game at present.

England face Wales in their second World Cup Pool A encounter

If there is a figure of equal stature in the Wales side (leaving aside Warburton, whose mastery of the hunter-gatherer role in the loose is unquestioned), it is the inside centre Jamie Roberts – a 6ft 4in, 17st 6lb route-one stampede specialist whose direct ball-carrying off first phase is fundamental to the way Warren Gatland, the Red Dragon coach, likes his teams to play.

Roberts’ direct opponent, the cross-coder Sam Burgess, is just a little taller and just a little heavier, so the Newport-born midfielder finds himself in the unusual position of finishing second in the tale of the tape. There again, the 73 international caps he carries around in his kitbag compare quite favourably to the tiny handful won by Burgess over the last few weeks. Much has been said and written about the Englishman’s “aura”. We are about to discover whether it counts for much in the face of hardened Test experience.

Neither side can contemplate defeat, for whoever loses will have to beat the supremely dangerous Wallabies if they are to stand an earthly chance of qualifying for the knockout stage. Wales know what it is to fly home early from World Cup tournaments – their interest ended at the pool stage in 1991, 1995 and 2007. England, by contrast, have never failed to find a way into the quarter-finals, but by the same yardstick, they have never been more at risk than they are now.

As Stuart Lancaster, their head coach, was heard to say after naming his side for this contest: “We should remember that the World Cup doesn’t end this weekend – that we’ll both have two more matches to play. But I can’t deny that right now, all roads lead to Twickenham for this one.”