Six Nations 2014: Fired-up England ready to go dragon hunting
A win over Wales will give Stuart Lancaster's emerging talents sweet revenge and the Triple Crown. The champions have other plans
There are good reasons to bemoan the playing of an England v Wales match on a Sunday, but a lack of atmosphere at Twickenham will not be one of them. The 82,000 lucky ticket-holders – and the millions of rugby lovers zoning in via television, the internet and social media – will be as fervent as ever watching this classic clash of neighbourly enemies.
Select your favourite strand from the cat's cradle of motivation. There's the soap-opera emotional baggage of England's 30-3 humbling in Cardiff in the final round of last year's Six Nations Championship, or the silvery shimmer of a first English Triple Crown since 2003 awaiting Chris Robshaw's grasp if his increasingly assured team make the most of home advantage, as the bookmakers' odds predict they will. Whichever team loses will wave a tear-stained hanky of farewell to the overall Championship title, which Wales have held for the past two years, and England won in 2011. The winner's chances regarding the title, given Ireland's current advantage in points difference at the top of the Six Nations table, will be much clearer at the final whistle.
And then there is a fascinating cast of players and coaches; from the gnarly three-time Championship winner Warren Gatland guiding Wales, to the England head coach Stuart Lancaster who, in a rare outbreak of hyperbole on Friday, described the next Twickenham meeting between these teams after today's – in the pool stage of the 2015 World Cup – as likely to possess "10 times" the profile of this one. Lancaster was explaining how the ever-present "bigger picture" of the global tournament 18 months from now is obliging England to "grow as leaders" the relatively inexperienced Mike Brown, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and Billy Twelvetrees.
The temptation, of course, among we who sit and watch, will be to declare the job already done if England win today. And they will probably do so if Brown continues to carry his running threat into the opponents' half; if Lawes and Launchbury continue their stunning re-calibration of the second-row skillset; and if Twelvetrees and the rest of the England half-backs and three- quarters continue to make up in ferociously committed defence what sometimes lets them down in attack: namely, incoherent communication and fuzzy peripheral vision. Much also will depend on Ben Morgan at No 8, after the injury to the tyro colossus Billy Vunipola in the 13-10 win over Ireland two weekends ago.
Wales, by dint of their Six Nations achievements and the dozen Lions from last summer's winning tour of Australia in their starting line-up led by the rejuvenated Sam Warburton, have been there, done that. Think Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Jamie Roberts and so on. England's starting team has 327 caps to Wales's 648; the benches are 74 versus 226. Yet any sportsperson would immediately recognise the inherent dilemma. Because England are younger, won't they possess the greater hunger? – and no matter the javelin-sized throwaway line by the young Exeter wing Jack Nowell about the Welsh "hate" of the English, or the Plaid Cymru MP who was upset at Warburton describing himself as British (the MP might like to check what it says on the front of his own passport).
"There is no bigger challenge than playing at Twickenham," said Gethin Jenkins, the loosehead prop who will be doing so for a sixth time today as he reaches his record-equalling 104th Wales cap. Having missed the red-rose successes in 2010 and 2011, Jenkins has won his last six competition meetings with England. Quite an upturn from Wales's dismal run from 1990 to 2004 when they lost 14 out of 17. Overall the score stands at 56-all with 12 draws.
Jenkins also revealed that Wales's aim in the past week has been to recreate the "backs to the wall" intensity that led to the 27-6 win over France a fortnight ago; itself a reaction to the monumental misfire in the previous match away to Ireland. For England's part, they say they know what to expect from Wales's so-called "Warrenball", for all Gatland's insistence that there have been tweaks in style in each Six Nations match this season. Jenkins, Adam Jones and friends face an England pack full of dangerous ball-carriers, yet possibly vulnerable in the scrum.
In the continued absence of first-choice props Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole, it will be up to Joe Marler and Dave Wilson to determine whether the shaggy haired Jones's self-confessed discomfort under the new scrum directives have been a shaggy dog story. "I don't know him [Jones] personally or what he is like as a bloke," said Marler, the 23-year-old loosehead from Sussex via Harlequins, "but if he is saying he has been struggling, then in the last game against France he showed that it is starting to click for him. The 'hit' may have gone but you can still make a statement by pushing. You just have to push a bit harder."
It would be tough to find a flaw in Lawes right now. Rhys Priestland, who had a yellow-card duffer at Twickenham on Wales's otherwise happy last visit in 2012, will do well to steer clear of the Northampton lock's extraordinary harrying of opposition fly-halves. It distinguishes Lawes, who also runs England's line-out, from even the multi-skilled excellence of Wales's Alun Wyn Jones. "How Courtney is that quick when he is so tall is beyond me," said Danny Care, the England scrum-half. "Our defence is what we set our stall on. It's our DNA."
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