Following back-to-back Six Nations titles including a Grand Slam, and that 30-3 hammering handed out in Cardiff last year and 10 Welshmen in the triumphant Lions series-winning side in Sydney it’s easy for Welsh rugby supporters to be dismissive of England’s chances in – not to mention Austin Healey’s comments about – Sunday’s match at Twickenham. However, Welsh fans don’t seem to know the capabilities of the players that will don the white jersey at HQ, and after watching top-flight English rugby for the past 18 seasons and commentating for 11 of those, I think I’m just about qualified to highlight some players who might cause some problems in the big clash on the Cabbage Patch.
Missing from Stuart Lancaster’s plans are the Leicester Lions Manu Tuilagi and Dan Cole. Both will be missed and their replacements will, naturally, be targeted by Wales as potential weak links. Outside centre Luther Burrell isn’t very well known outside England, but his direct running, strength and off-loading game for Northampton has catapulted him into a deserved starting place. For me, I think he has more of a footballing brain than Tuilagi, who can go and has gone AWOL in defence at times. If Burrell was Welsh, he would be the ideal understudy to Jamie Roberts as Gatland prefers to play the bigger centre at 12, rather than Stuart Lancaster’s favourite 13. Burrell can cause problems; Jonathan Davies will have his hands full.
There is a chink of light at tight head in Cole’s absence as Davey Wilson, like the aforementioned Davies, is only just returning after injury. The Bath prop’s scrummaging prowess is not in doubt, and he stood up well against Ireland last time out, but his speed around the park and overall fitness might be something Wales can exploit, especially when he’s defending.
The rest of the three-quarter line is also inexperienced and unproven. Jack Nowell has been fast-tracked into the England squad following injuries to Marland Yarde and Christian Wade, allied to Chris Ashton being out of favour with the England coaches. Nowell can, with ball in hand, be dangerous, despite his dismal try scoring record for the Exeter Chiefs. The Gloucester pair of Billy Twelvetrees and Jonny May are the choices of a man with very little choice at all. Both play for a Gloucester team that has been dismal under the stewardship of Nigel Davies. May has a step, Twelvetrees a boot, and that’s about it. If there is deadlock elsewhere, the Welsh boys can take advantage here if their opponents’ defence is found wanting.
It all sounds easy, doesn’t it? Believe me, it’s not. The spine of the team is very strong and the historical suspect temperament of all the players there seems to be a thing of the past. Perennial bad boy Dylan Hartley has, after a quiet word down the pub with Lancaster, got his head down and turned into the Lions hooker he could have been.
Ben Morgan is given a chance in the absence of Billy Vunipola and despite a rotten season with Gloucester, he has done well when playing for his country; he’ll be a key ball carrier and Dan Lydiate will have his hands full keeping him behind the gain line.
Danny Care – crappy haircut and all – is the best player in the whole team at the moment. Quick as a cat, the Yorkshireman sees and exploits gaps much better than Rhys Webb and his support play is akin to Shaun Edwards in his Wigan pomp. Speaking of Wigan, Owen Farrell is hardly a clone of Phil Bennett, but when the chips are down, his kicking both from hand and from the tee can give England the edge, plus he is a solid defender and decent distributor of the ball. Wales cannot afford to concede too many penalties or Farrell will punish them with territory or points.
The last man in the spine is the last man in defence: fullback Mike Brown. The niggly nugget from Harlequins is playing superbly and in doing so is keeping the likes of Alex Goode and Ben Foden (although he’s been injured until very recently) out of the 15 shirt. Fearless in defence, most secure under the high ball and another great support runner, he’s another who could cause trouble, including in counter-attack.
Austin Healey will be proven to be a genius if his 6/10 for Adam Jones versus 8/10 for his opposite number in the scrum, Harlequins’ spiky loosehead Joe Marler, is proven. Marler can carry a bit, can scrum a bit and can niggle a lot. If Bomb is on his game in the tight, then Marler could be wound up and look as stupid as his hair, but it won’t be a pushover.
The second rows are inseparable, in my view. AWJ is back with Luke Charteris, but England pair Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes are both supreme athletes. They both play like extra flankers who can carry and defend as well as any international 6 in the northern hemisphere, plus they give plenty of lineout options. Good as they are, the Welsh boys will meet their match in the boiler room for certain.
I’ll level with you. Apart from one superb game against New Zealand I can’t see the attraction of Tom Wood, but he must be doing something right to keep being picked at 6 or 8. So we, and Wales, will need to watch closely to see what he does that’s so good. Is the next Richard Hill? England seem to think so.
Ben Morgan has already been mentioned and we all know about Toby Faletau, so I will conclude with what most Wales fans see as the most one-sided individual match-up between open sides and captains Sam Warburton and Chris Robshaw. “Six-and-a-half!” say some. “There because there’s nobody else” say others. Er, no. The England skipper is a lot better than we Taffs think. Robshaw gives everything for the cause, even against more celebrated players. Commitment and leadership are two attributes that the Quins 7 has in spades. Dismiss him at your peril. England should cherish him.