If you had asked me before last Friday whether the Six Nations title would still be up for grabs come the Wales v England match in Cardiff, I would have said “Of course not”! It went without saying that the English would put enough points on the board against Italy to ensure that the idea of a ‘Championship Decider’ became irrelevant. Fast forward to Monday morning and Welsh fans will have woken up with an unexpected spring in their steps, their optimism levels steadily rising as they allow themselves to think, “We could just do this”. The fact that I was proven wrong in my prediction is unsurprising given that most of my Six Nations forecasts have gone the same way (as a quick glance of my first blog post will show). I did, however, say that England would be joint favourites for the title along with (ahem) France, and that their away games would be key. So it has proven to be with England now travelling to the Welsh capital to seek their first Grand Slam since 2003. Wales on the other hand have surpassed the expectations of their supporters who approached this tournament with a certain trepidation given the much-maligned losing streak that the team were on. At the start of February, I had given them (at best) a chance of coming second in the championship and the team should be applauded for still being in the hunt come the final weekend (especially after that torrid opening half against Ireland). This year’s championship hasn’t been the most memorable in terms of the quality of matches (feel free to leave your comments on why below) but it has maintained an unpredictability that sets us up for a great closing weekend…hopefully!
A word here for the Italians – their performance on Sunday showed just how far they have come since the inaugural tournament in 2000. In years gone by the England v Italy match at Twickenham would have resulted in a heavy win for the hosts. Even as recently as two years ago the Azzuri left HQ on the wrong end of a 59-13 result, yet in the last five minutes of Sunday’s match they were tantalising close to securing a draw. They may still be a frustrating side to watch at times but their competitiveness has ensured that this year’s tournament is still difficult to call. How frustrating it is then that Wales didn’t go in search of more points during the last twenty minutes in Rome when they were clearly there to be taken. Wales’ championship hopes would be looking even healthier now had they done so.
So let’s cut to the chase – can Wales beat England in Cardiff on Saturday? They most definitely can. They may have lost their last five games at the Millennium Stadium but they will be buoyed by three successive wins away from home, and if a match against England doesn’t bring out the best from the Welsh players then I don’t know what will. Can they win by the eight points necessary to win the title? This is more of a challenge, obviously, but it is one that this Welsh team can rise to. Their recent matches on the road have been won by ten, seventeen and ten points respectively. England will, without doubt, be Wales’ toughest opponents this year and they will have to work hard to earn a win, let alone an eight-point victory. However, the fact that they have to win by eight may be a good thing for a Welsh side who too often approach a game with the mentality of ‘sneaking home’ over the finishing line. Both teams look well matched up front, but Wales have the edge in the back-line. It may be time for Wales to glide rather than grunt. My prediction? Wales 20, England 10 and when have I ever been wrong?
Whatever happens on Saturday, Welsh and English fans alike will savour the build-up…and so they should! You don’t need me to point out the significance of the Old Rivalry for both sets of supporters but, make no doubt about it, this is the biggest contest between these two nations for many a year. With a Lions tour on the horizon, BBC Sport have dubbed the match ‘the final audition’ for squad places and it’s easy to understand why when you look at the head-to-heads that will take place on the pitch this weekend: Phillips v Youngs; Wyn-Jones v Launchbury; Roberts v Tuilagi and, of course, Warburton v Robshaw. That last example will draw most of the headlines this week with many people seeing it as a shoot-out for the British and Irish Lions captaincy. I don’t know whether it will play out like this, but the game will certainly go a long way to deciding who wears that No. 7 shirt – a position made even more crucial following the season-ending injury sustained by Australia’s talismanic David Pocock this weekend.
Forget about the Lions context for a moment though (a request easier said than done) and Saturday’s match is a not-so-gentle reminder that the Old Rivalry has entered a new, exciting era. In the 130-year history of this contest, the two sides have probably never been so closely matched. This is certainly the case in the professional age. England dominated the 1990s and early 2000s while Wales were limited to bit-parts and cameos (most famously at Wembley in 1999). Since 2005, Wales have been the dominant side while the Red Rose has basked too much in the glow of its 2003 World Cup win, to the detriment of the national side. Rather than start afresh, the English had stubbornly refused to ‘move on’ both in terms of style of play and personnel (seen most vividly in the premature appointment of Martin Johnson as coach). However, England are now a team on the ascendency and Stuart Lancaster has instilled a work ethic amongst his side that make them especially dangerous (as New Zealand found out last Autumn).
The ultimate goal for the current crop of Welsh and English players is winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The Welsh run to the semi-final in the 2011 edition of the tournament has provided a young side with the determination and self-belief that they can win rugby’s biggest prize. In contrast, England’s failure at the tournament has ushered in a new player and coaching regime that is equally determined in its desire to win a home World Cup. They may have arrived here from different places but, on the rocky road to World Cup glory, Wales and England now find themselves on the same part of that narrow path. Both nations boast a whole host of young, quality players and the squads from each side of the Severn are unlikely to dramatically change between now and 2015. The teams are likely to get to know each other very well over the next few years as they battle it out for Six Nations honours, Lions places and Southern Hemisphere scalps. If last year’s game at Twickenham is anything to go by, this new version of the Old Rivalry is likely to be the most intense and closely-fought yet. That game in February 2012 (eventually won by a bit of brilliance by Scott Williams) was brutal and proved to be the title decider as England came a close second in Lancaster’s first season in charge. A little over twelve months on and we find ourselves in the same position – two nations with a barrel load of history between them fighting it out once again to be crowned Champions of Europe.
I, for one, hope that the rivalry between the two nations becomes ever fiercer as it can only be a good thing. Increased competition results in increased improvement and both sides still have a way to go to consistently compete with the ‘big three’ of the Southern Hemisphere (a requirement of any World Cup winning team). England and Wales have been drawn in the same World Cup pool as Australia and both teams will have to secure a win over the Aussies if they are to progress to the tournament’s later stages. If these enemies of old can continue to spur each other on, then I can see them both progressing from the ‘pool of death’ (and knocking the Aussies out in round one has got to be an incentive for both teams)! This brand new Old Rivalry may not end when, as expected, Wales and England meet in the opening game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. If the two sides each meet their potential, this particular era may conclude on October 31st 2015 – the day of the final itself.
That’s all to come. For now, it’s all about Saturday and the small matter of determining the Six Nations championship. It may not have been a vintage year for the grand old tournament but this grand Old Rivalry may yet ensure that it finishes with an almighty bang. Welsh and English fans alike – don’t despair if you lose. We’ll more than likely do it all again next year. Come on Wales!