CHRIS FOY: Wales and England set for Cardiff showdown at last

CHRIS FOY: After the politics, now for the passion… Wales and England set for full-blooded Cardiff showdown at last after week of turmoil – and it is must-win for both sides

  • The prospect of the crunch game going ahead has been up in the air all week 
  • Wales players and governing body finally reached an agreement to abate strike 
  • The game is must-win for both Wales and England in front of a feverish crowd 

After all the strife and the strike threat, one of rugby’s marquee rivalries will erupt with all the usual fervour in Cardiff on Saturday night, as Wales and England park the politics and revert to revival mode.

At least this grand event is happening, which wasn’t a foregone conclusion while Welsh players were in bitter conflict with their union. Although the warring factions pulled back from the brink, there remains a heap of trouble to address, off the field and on it — not just for the hosts, but also for Saturday’s unwelcome visitors.

These neighbours and oval-ball enemies find themselves operating parallel salvage operations after sudden, untimely regime changes. December was a month of the long knives on both sides of the border as Wayne Pivac and Eddie Jones were dismissed, and Warren Gatland and Steve Borthwick were installed as the new head coaches with similar emergencies on their hands.

It is still the relaunch phase but they are up against the clock. A rapid impact is required to avoid this Six Nations turning into a protracted ordeal — and to ensure a reasonable state of readiness for the World Cup in the autumn.

In essence, it is a race to Marseille, where there is every chance that these sides could lock horns in the quarter-finals, with the smart money on England to be in better shape by then. For now, they are both in transition, stuck in the second tier of the Six Nations hierarchy and languishing in the world rankings — England in sixth, Wales in ninth.

The race to Marseille has begun for both sides – Saturday’s clash will provide an insight into the direction of the teams under new regimes

Borthwick has achieved the better start to the rebuild project, with one win so far — albeit at home against Italy — some selection stability and a general sense of purpose and direction. England haven’t lit up the tournament, but they have re-established some of the lost staples and national trademarks; set-piece clout and an effective driving game up front.

A renewed commitment to picking players on merit has been repaid by the performances of Ollie Lawrence and Jack Willis against the Azzurri in particular, as well as Alex Mitchell’s cameo off the bench. Ollie Chessum has emerged as an imposing new fulcrum of the pack, as Borthwick’s revamp has seen Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi removed and Marcus Smith demoted to the bench.

An overhaul is feasible because there is a vast array of English talent with Test potential, despite the financial turmoil in the Premiership. For now, so many contenders are vying for places. Smith will be simmering with impatience on the bench, knowing George Ford is breathing down his neck. Likewise, Henry Arundell is primed to make a high-octane impact when he is unleashed, so Anthony Watson will make his comeback knowing that the London Irish rookie has designs on his shirt.

It is a big game for the visiting captain, as Owen Farrell wants to wear 10, but Ford’s recovery from a serious achilles injury means he may end up being shunted back to inside centre if he doesn’t create greater attacking fluency and efficiency. England need to make far better use of all the possession and territory being generated by their forwards and the gainline momentum provided by Lawrence in particular.

This will be a big step up for Borthwick’s side, whatever the evidence of Wales’ opening two defeats. This is not a city of regular English success. They haven’t won at the Principality Stadium since 2017 and as a means of focusing their minds about the dangers here, several men in red on Saturday were also involved in the record-breaking 30-3 annihilation of the same opponents 10 years ago. It was carnage, amid a cacophony.

Warren Gatland has opted for experience in his Wales line up to face England on Saturday 

Gatland has sensed the need to turn back to his veterans for this momentous encounter. In the starting XV are Alun Wyn Jones —aged 37, captain Ken Owens — 36, Leigh Halfpenny — 34, Justin Tipuric — 33 and Taulupe Faletau — 32. Among the replacements is 33-year-old Dan Biggar.

Given the backdrop of turbulence and tension, there is a certain logic behind leaning on these influential figures, but fresh evidence is needed to dispel fears that their powers are fading.

In theory, the circumstances are made for the likes of Jones and Biggar to demand a circling of the wagons and a defiant statement to their employers, their people and the watching millions everywhere. But the events of the last fortnight are no way to prepare for a Test of this magnitude. Whether the unified spirit forged in adversity can trump the negative effect of so much disruption remains to be seen, but it appears highly unlikely.

Gatland’s selections so far have been erratic and it has been a very different start to his second stint compared to the first, which began with victory at Twickenham in 2008 on the way to a Grand Slam. He has something to prove on a personal level after an ill-fated spell with the Chiefs in Waikato which preceded his long-haul rebound to Cardiff. He has inherited a multi-dimensional mess which might be far worse than he had imagined. Unlike Borthwick, Gatland does not have a great depth of resources to work with, in terms of personnel or budget. The regions are in a desperate state and one of them may have to be culled. There is not enough money to go round. The crisis has not yet been averted.

Following a week of turmoil, Gatland will hope his players can harness the cacophony of noise

Several of the men in red were involved in the 2013 30-3 annihilation of England at this very venue – though the roof remains closed this time 

Wales have plenty of individual threats in their ranks, not least now that Louis Rees-Zammit has been recalled on the wing. But as yet they have lacked cohesion, they have been bullied up front by Ireland and Scotland, and their defensive effort unravelled at Murrayfield.

The hosts will rely on the partisan passion which will cascade down from the stands. Welsh antipathy towards their neighbours will be as noisily apparent as ever. This venue for this fixture is like nothing else in rugby — perhaps even in any sport.

The roof will be open but that doesn’t matter, it will still be a foaming cauldron inside. No team will face greater hostility than England will face here, yet the bookies have them as clear favourites. That seems fair, despite their recent struggles away from home.

The stakes are sky-high. Both teams and new regimes need a lift-off. The winners can go on to save face in this Six Nations with a mid-table finish, and build towards the World Cup with renewed optimism. The losers could be heading for the wooden spoon and more trouble and strife ahead.

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