If there is one thing everyone remembers about last year’s Six Nations game between Wales and England in Cardiff, it is that England took a serious spanking.
But there were also things people now choose to forget, not least the fact that the match officials had a significant influence on the way the contest unfolded. The way I recall it, the dynamic changed when Wales took command at the scrum, and it was not clear to me that Steve Walsh, the referee, made all the right calls in that crucial theatre of action.
He was not helped by Craig Joubert, one of the touch-judges, who was very reluctant to offer clear guidance on what was happening between the rival front rows. Funnily enough, when Joubert refereed the England-Ireland match at Twickenham a fortnight ago, he was equally disinclined to take a firm stand on matters at the set-piece. Ironically, it worked to England’s advantage on that occasion: had Ireland been able to extract full value from their obvious superiority at scrum time, either through shots at goal or advantageous field position, I believe they would have won.
Tomorrow, the French official Romain Poite will be the man in charge – an official renowned the rugby world over for his understanding of the scrum and his insistence on rewarding the stronger unit. I’m not saying that the set-piece will be the tipping point this time round, but England know it will be damned difficult to get a result if they finish second in the tight exchanges. A lot depends on Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley and David Wilson finding a way to neutralise a hugely experienced front row of Welsh Test Lions.
And even if England achieve parity at the scrum, there will be other obstacles in their way: most of them unusually big. With Wales back to full strength in the three-quarter line with the return of Jonathan Davies at outside centre, the size and aggression they boast from Nos 11-14 probably balances any advantage England might expect to draw from playing in front of the Twickenham crowd. Stuart Lancaster has produced a team with real grit about it: they fight for each other, they’re no longer unnerved by conceding points in a rush, as they were a year ago, and the discipline they are showing in defence is very impressive indeed. Witness the last 15 minutes against the Irish.
But they are not playing Ireland, or anything like Ireland, tomorrow. There is a big difference between facing a side armed with a fancy playbook and the ambition to attack from deep, and taking on a team of reigning champions who generate such massive amounts of horsepower: who, rather than looking to outstrip their opponents with magical sleight-of-hand trickery, simply seek to out-muscle them. There is no Jonny Sexton-style creative spirit in the Wales team. Instead, they’ll launch Jamie Roberts in midfield, then George North, then a couple of forwards, then Roberts again – and keep doing it until their back line is reloaded and there are mismatches to exploit in open field.
Yes, I know they have chosen to start this game without Mike Phillips at scrum-half – a man who, at his best, is a symbol of all that is most potent and most intense about the unforgiving style of Welsh rugby developed by Warren Gatland during his long spell as head coach. Phillips is the Mike Brown of Wales: like the England full-back, he injects raw anger into a game. Has Warren missed a trick here, given the impact Phillips made on last year’s match? I’m not sure. Rhys Webb performed pretty well against France last time out, and when you look around the Wales team, there is plenty enough know-how in most areas to make up for a lack of experience in one position.
So how do England approach things tactically speaking? For one thing, they will have to be alert in defence. On the face of it, stopping big, hard-running, route-one merchants like Roberts and North does not seem terribly complicated, but Wales are good at reconstructing their back line quickly – they can do it in the space of two or three phases if they get the right momentum – and if England are caught with too many backs on the short side, they will find themselves in a sea of trouble on the long side when Rhys Priestland pulls the trigger from outside-half. The midfielders must keep their eyes open, and their wits about them.
It’s also important to start well. When I was on the England coaching panel and we won our Six Nations game in Cardiff three years ago, our work in the first 20 minutes was bang on the money. Certain specific things paid off handsomely for us that night: Toby Flood played very flat at No 10, using the inside ball to great effect and working closely with Chris Ashton, who was at his best in timing his infield runs off the wing. Also, we used a short kicking game to counter the aggressive Welsh blitz defence; and we moved the ball wider than usual, more quickly than usual, in an effort to test the opposition on the edges.
Some of that detail may be relevant to this game, although Stuart and his fellow coaches will have their own ideas on how to beat the champions. All I know is this: if England lose the bone-on-bone collisions, they will lose the game. This Welsh team are effectively saying to their hosts: “If you’re going to beat us with our physicality level, you’ll have to pay a price.”
Brian Smith is the director of rugby at London Irish and a former England attack coach