For hundreds of thousands of noisy neighbours on either side of the Severn Bridge this remains the most eagerly anticipated weekend of the year. It hardly needed Eddie Jones’s vigorous pre-match cauldron-stirring to raise anticipation levels for a fixture which requires no artificial enhancement. When even the Welsh first minister is discussing class war in the Times in the context of a Twickenham international, it becomes ever harder to classify it as just another game.
Somewhere amid all the daffodils, leeks, roses, chariots, pots and black kettles, even so, one thing unifies all sides. Of course people desperately want their own tribe to win but above all they yearn for their representatives in red and white to do them proud. There have been umpteen instances of suffocatingly tense Anglo-Welsh encounters but those that attain legendary status are always distinguished by something – or someone – out of the ordinary.
From a teenaged Keith Jarrett to more recent match-winners such as Scott Williams, Gareth Davies and Elliot Daly, this fixture can make – or break – careers in 80 minutes. Jones’s calculated – and pretty unedifying – attempt to unsettle Wales’s fly-half Rhys Patchell this week was recognition of that stark reality. Jones saw enough in Wales’s stunning win over Scotland to know the damage the offload-happy visitors can inflict given time and space. If Patchell pauses even for a split second before throwing a long flat ball across the English midfield, the Australian will consider his mission accomplished.
Applause, nevertheless, could well echo around Twickenham from all parts should the 24-year-old Patchell have an absolute blinder. Top-class rugby union is tough enough without coaches publicly singling out opposition playmakers and wondering aloud if they possess sufficient bottle. Patchell was hardly deficient in that respect against Scotland, nor indeed at full-back for the Scarlets against Bath last month. Jones has got plenty right since becoming England coach but, win or lose, he owes the Welsh outside-half a quiet post-match apology. If Patchell is Wales’s supposedly inferior third-choice at No 10, what does that make England’s Sam Simmonds in the absence of Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes?
While Jones is at it, a diplomatic word with Alun Wyn Jones might also be wise before the Welsh captain starts dangling his namesake by his ankles from a third storey window. If there is one Welshman it pays not to wind up on the eve of battle it is surely Alun Wyn, a notably successful Lion with 114 Tests-worth of integrity. If the latter – and it is a big “if” – was tarnishing rugby’s ethos of respect by briefly delaying the conversion of Scotland’s try last Saturday in an effort to have the score re-examined, is the cynical verbal targeting of Patchell massively different?
Either way, the Six Nations could do with another cleansing weekend to sweep aside the trash talk, the injury updates, the dubious HIA cases and the tiresome TMO debates. Whether that adrenalin shot will once again be provided by Wales remains to be seen but rarely have they travelled to London in such quietly upbeat mood.
The same, admittedly, was said of Scotland en route to Cardiff last week but Warren Gatland and his chief defensive lieutenant, Shaun Edwards, both know from experience how to upset hotly-tipped English opposition.
Despite the absence of Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau, this Welsh side possesses a hugely effective breakdown presence in Josh Navidi and a front five more than capable of holding their set-piece own. Two in-form centres, a class scrum-half, a top-notch goalkicker … it is worth remembering England were staring directly down the barrel in Cardiff last year until Daly’s dramatic last-gasp score.
With the weather forecast suggesting a damp ball, it may well be England choose to kick more than they did in Rome, which would not necessarily displease Wales’s counterattackers. There is also the small matter of the year ending in an eight which bizarrely seems to make this fixture more intriguing. Wales have either won or drawn this game in 1908, 1938, 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988 and 2008, with the recent sequence broken only at Twickenham in 1998 when the visitors were trounced 60-26. Then again they did bounce back spectacularly to win 32-31 at Wembley the following year; it is traditional for the English to get their fingers burned by fire-breathing dragons at least once per decade.
Gatland, Edwards, Rob Howley and Robin McBryde, though, would particularly love a repeat of 2015, when England’s World Cup dreams came tumbling down in the pool stages. The last four Six Nations games between the sides have all gone England’s way but the last three have all been won by less than a score. Even without numerous Welsh Lions, these are two well-matched sides and the Scarlets’ vivid 35-17 victory over Bath at the Rec last month has further diminished any visiting fear factor.
Jones, however, keeps dismissing the European club factor as irrelevant and England’s record of not having lost a Six Nations game at Twickenham since 2012, when Scott Williams ripped the ball from Courtney Lawes’s grasp to apply the late coup de grace and secure Wales a triple crown, is hard to ignore. Winning the collisions will be absolutely critical once again. Those pitchside at the Stadio Olimpico last weekend were particularly struck by England’s physicality and it will be no surprise if they opt for a similarly direct, high tempo game, intermingled either with chips over the top to wrong-foot Wales’s rush defence or the slick wraparound plays that worked so well in Rome.
The recalled Jonathan Joseph also has a notable record in this fixture, his sharp-footed try in 2015 proving the difference in Cardiff, while England have previously prospered in Six Nations games refereed by France’s Jérôme Garcès. The solitary exception, however, came last year in Dublin against Ireland and Wales can also draw encouragement from their recent first-hand experience of the English scrum. The joint scrummaging session organised in Bristol last autumn was hardly a Camp David summit but it did have a genuine edge.
So who wins this latest full-scale, no-holds-barred collision? England’s six-day turnaround theoretically favours Wales and there is every reason to suspect the visitors will still be in the game in the final quarter. In that event, an extremely tense finale could await “Jones The Gob”. Expect a hard-fought home win followed by a similarly spiky post-match press conference.
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