When England and Wales clash on the rugby pitch it’s usually a game that needs little hyperbole or journalistic rhetoric to get the juices flowing.
The quality of New Zealand – South Africa clashes may be higher, the cross-Tasman Sea battle may bring together the mentally toughest teams in world rugby but there is something special about an England – Wales encounter.
It pitches big against small, a country where rugby defines the national psyche with one where rugby flits in and out of the national consciousness; it is visceral, tribal rugby that only two close neighbours could serve up.
Tomorrow’s World Cup battle will have a special intensity to it given the loser will be half way towards exiting the World Cup at the first hurdle. Here are the main areas where the game will be won and lost.
As ever, how the referee interprets the scrum and which team he decides is dominant will go a long way towards securing the victory. It is the Gethin Jenkins – Dan Cole duel that will probably be the side to watch during tomorrow night’s game.
The referee Jerome Garces was also the referee in the 6 Nations clash earlier this year when he penalised Gethin Jenkins a number of times for hinging, where his upper body drops below his hips. In that game Wales went backwards at the first scrum and at the second scrum Garces penalised Jenkins.
The Welsh management has long believed Jenkins has been singled out by referees for unfair punishment at the scrum. If Garces has the preconception that Jenkins is a weaker scrummager than Coles then Wales could struggle at the scrum.
Stuart Lancaster’s stamp on this England team has been to turn the traditional conservative, forward dominated approach of the England of old in to a fast paced team that uses quick ball to provide their elusive backs and strong forward carriers with space and time to attack. On the eve of Lancaster’s biggest game he seems to have lost confidence and reverted to type.
There is some logic in having Burgess mark Jamie Roberts in the same fashion that Joe Worsley did way back in 2009. Lancaster knows Roberts is key to Gatland’s game plan as he gives the Welsh team the go forward that they build their game off, but trying to stop him is harder than planning to stop him.
The more surprising choice is Farrell over Ford and the retention of Barritt. This is not a back line to get the pulses racing but it will be efficient and solid which may be enough to prevent Roberts and Williams making in roads.
The English midfield selection does play in to the hands of the Welsh back row where the combination of the the tackler (Lydiate) and the jackal (Warburton) has proved to be a rich source of penalties and turnover ball over the Gatland years. Burgess, Barritt and Farrell do not have twinkling toes and it is their straight running that plays to the strengths of Lydiate and Warburton. Wales struggle against pace and movement; exactly what is missing in this England back line.
Come 55/60 minutes on the clock we know the stream of replacements will flood on to the field, resulting in a fragmented period of the game until those new players get up to the pace of the match.
Their introduction, against tiring opposition players, has a major influence on the outcome of test matches at the top level. Think of the effect of the predominantly English players coming on for the British and Irish Lions during the final test versus Australia. These were top players who were first choice for a strong England team so the drop off in standard was imperceptible. Australia couldn’t compete.
Wales’ forward replacements should provide an additional impetus as the game wears on with Charteris, Tipuric, Owens and Lee all offering string bench options. The same can’t be said for the backs replacements where the injury list has robbed Wales of a number of options.
By contrast England has an abundance of riches to choose from – which does cause its own challenges in deciding who to play, but provides Lancaster with attractive options that can be used to change the style of game or maintain the current intensity.
It’s a pet topic of theblitzdefence but this Rugby World Cup has shown that the rolling (or driving) maul is the weapon of choice to breach the opposition’s try line. We have seen a large number of drives from mauls and most of them are illegal, with players joining the maul ahead of the back foot or binding by hanging on with a hand (read here for a more detailed description of why these mauls are illegal – article).
There is a good chance that at least one try will be scored from a rolling maul in Saturday’s game so the team that has mastered this technique will gain a big advantage. Referees are not applying the laws correctly so teams need to adapt and use this fact to their advantage.
In a match up that has traditionally been close over the past few seasons a single try could be the difference between winning or losing.
Who will win?
We don’t do predictions and we never will, but it is clear that Australia has moved forward a gear or two over the last 6 months so a defeat for either England or Wales could be a mortal blow with Australia to come on the horizon.
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