It’s December 3rd 2012, the day of the 2015 Rugby World Cup Official Pool Draw. The first ball from pot 3 is revealed, and rugby fans around the world start rubbing their eyes. They can’t believe what they are seeing; they question if they are seeing it correctly. They read it aloud: Pool A. Australia, England, Wales. Never has the term, ‘the group of death’ been so appropriate.
1027 days counted down by those excited fans, and it is finally upon us. England vs Wales; one of rugby’s biggest and oldest rivalries, spanning 134 years and 126 games. But this is undoubtedly the biggest so far. Tonight, Wales are to line up against World Cup hosts England, at Twickenham. World Cup pool games do not get any better than this.
Coming into this tournament, Wales’ luck has been awful, losing two vital players in the warm up games in Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny. The talented pair are both essential within the squad, and their loss will be felt tonight. It is not only Halfpenny’s impeccable kicking ability which is going to be missed, but also his unbreakable defence. There aren’t many who can read the game better from the fullback role, and this, combined with the way he puts his body on the line for the Welsh jersey, makes him one of the best in his position in the world. Rhys Webb’s injury is also a big blow to this side. He has had a brilliant year both in the Pro12 and internationally for Wales. He plays the game at such a fast pace, which makes him so dangerous for defences, and explains his incredible try scoring record. However, Wales are still confident. They have all their faith in the man replacing Halfpenny; Liam Williams, and rightly so. He has been in mesmerising form for the Scarlets this year, and impresses with every chance he gets to represent his country. He is a huge attacking threat, and adds a bit more X-factor to the Welsh backline. He is a game breaker, someone who can create an opportunity out of nothing, and sometimes, that is what can be the difference, especially in games as tight as this.
With the English injury to Jonathan Joseph, Sam Burgess partners Barritt in the midfield, and it looks as if England plan to play Wales at their own game and overpower them. Burgess impressed off the bench against Fiji, and has been rewarded with his second international start. I would expect England to play a simple game based on getting over the gainline and focusing on quick ball. Indeed, they will struggle to play an expansive style of rugby, as Barritt lacks the pace and skill that Joseph possesses. George Ford is a great player in the expansive, open game, but rarely plays any other style. Farrell therefore replaces him in the starting team, and he is very used to playing this sort of crash ball, kick and chase game, which is so well known at Allianz Park.
In England’s first game, we saw them make a lot of errors, probably due to the pressure they were under. The pressure is only going to be greater for this game, so England will need to handle it well in order to stand any chance. Warren Gatland has made it clear that Wales are the underdogs, and this is just the way they like it. England had some trouble at the scrum against Fiji, and they will have been working tirelessly with Graham Rowntree this week in order to get this right. Wales will be looking to get an advantage here, and this will be a crucial area of the game. If one team dominates the scrum, they should win the game. If there isn’t much in it, then it will become a test of who will win the battle at the breakdown. England looked unconvincing at rucktime against Fiji too, and this will be a crucial area of the game tonight. They will need to keep the Welsh captain Sam Warburton quiet, as on his day, he is up there as one of the best opensides in the game, and getting regular turnover ball can be very dangerous.
This game looks like it will go down as one of the classics. It will be an old-fashioned arm wrestle. It is simple, whoever can get quick ball over the gainline, and remain strong and disciplined in defence, will win. It looks to be close upfront, which means it could be settled by tiny margins, so any chances need to be taken by both sides. Tonight, get ready for Twickenham’s biggest game yet.