Six Nations: Heavyweight England v Wales contest can light up the championship

Our rugby boffin gives us the lowdown on Saturday’s huge clash between British neighbours...

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A Six Nations dust-up between England and Wales is never in any need of the hard sell.

Like a heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden, the excitement and anticipation of the event as a spectacle is usually enough to get pulses racing and bums on seats, regardless of the qualities of the participants.

These cross-border rivals have been knocking lumps out of each other in the name of Owain Glyndwr, Edward Longshanks, Max Boyce and Prince Harry since 1881 and for the Welsh, in particular, it is the Six Nations fixture that matters most, whichever side of the Severn it is played, with a title at stake or not.

This Saturday at Twickenham, however, has the potential to be a classic between two sides up and running after thumping wins on the opening weekend and with silverware in their sights. No overhyped chancers here, but a genuine Ali-Frazier barnstormer in the making. And then there’s the respective head coaches.

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Eddie Jones and his Wales counterpart Warren Gatland are two of the game’s big beasts, on the training ground and in the press conference room. When either of them is around the soundbites flow and trophies tend to follow.

These former hookers are each capable of dishing dry-witted verbal grenades, Gatland locking horns with fellow Kiwis during last summer’s drawn Lions series against the All Blacks.

Jones, meanwhile and in between a constant flow of one-liners, has aimed his barbs at pretty much every rival in world rugby as he has steered England from 2015 World Cup flops, under predecessor Stuart Lancaster, to serious 2019 contenders with back-to-back Six Nations titles and a series win in Australia.

Jones’s most recent targets in the build-up to his bid for a championship-first three-in-a-row have been the Irish and Scots, whom he sarcastically branded the “darlings of European rugby” when suggesting his own side were not favourites at all, despite being a short-priced 11/10 to retain their title and 5/2 to win a second Slam in three years.

Gatland has played mind games before previous encounters with England since taking the Wales job in 2008, most notably in 2011 when he goaded hooker Dylan Hartley.

England won the game 26-19 in Cardiff en route to the title and Gatland has resisted the temptation to jibe Jones in their two previous seasons as direct rivals, both Wales losses.

Maybe it was the confidence with which injury-hit Wales, missing key figures including Lions heroes Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies and fly-halves Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland, dismantled highly-touted Scotland 34-7 last Saturday at the Principality Stadium, rendering them darlings no more.

For Gatland has a twinkle in his eye ahead of this trip to Twickenham, from where he has thrice returned victorious, including the Grand Slam campaigns of 2008 and 2012.

This week, there was praise for his rival, but with a little snip every now and then. Jones, at 56, four years his senior was, Gatland said, an “intriguing” coach he could learn from and definitely a contender to succeed him as Lions coach to South Africa in 2021.

“He’ll do a great job if he’s Lions coach — 3-0 will be expected. It’s probably the easiest of the three tours, isn’t it?” said the man who has been undefeated in series in Australia in 2013 and New Zealand.

England, he ventured, had world-class players, but had not changed too much from the 2015 version Wales defeated at Twickenham as World Cup pool rivals.

“They are strong at scrum and lineout, with attacking threats as well. I don’t see a massive amount of change from what we’ve experienced in the past,” Gatland mused, no doubt riling his opposite number.

“That’s the key,” he added, “not being intimidated by the Twickenham factor… We don’t have any fear about going there. We are excited about it.”

For all the Welsh bravado this is a game for England to lose, as they did in 2015 when Lancaster’s men blew a 10-point second-half lead to lose 28-25.

Jones’ England do not fold so easily. Their only loss in 23 Tests since that World Cup debacle came against Ireland in Dublin last March.

Twickenham will not be so easily plundered and though Welsh tails are up, their injury-enforced stand-ins are set to face much sterner tests than the Scots posed last weekend.

England’s inherent strength in depth, resourced by the biggest playing pool in rugby, means their numerous injuries are more easily covered. Scrum-half Ben Youngs out this week? Up steps Danny Care with Richard Wigglesworth, the Saracens first choice, next in line.

No Billy Vunipola or Nathan Hughes at No.8? No problem. In comes Sam Simmonds for a championship debut and two tries against the Italians.

The dice is loaded heavily in England’s favour.

Rugby Insider’s tip: I reckon Eddie Jones will have his roses ready to bloom in time to drive Gatty batty and the Evens shot of England on the (-12) points might just be worth a try.

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* All odds correct at time of posting.

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