England’s record in Cardiff is not a pretty one as of late. A last-gasp Elliot Daly try in 2016 has been the only England victory in Wales since 2011. This coming Saturday England will face a fired-up Wales team desperate to get their Six Nations campaign up and running.
Any notion that England will face an understrength Welsh team exhausted by off-the-field politics is rubbish. Wales will use the incredible atmosphere that only the Principality stadium can generate on an England v Wales day to lift their performance. England will need their captain Owen Farrell and men like Maro Itoje to have huge games if they are to win in Cardiff.
Wales v England is set to be a thriller, and Charlie Inglefield looks over the key battles on Saturday.
Owen Farrell must find his form to guide England victory
There has been so much chat about whether Owen Farrell’s best days are behind him. Marcus Smith must surely get his chance to cement the number ten jersey soon, he is such a talent that England must not waste. Playing in the cauldron of Cardiff is just the kind of match that Farrell should excel in.
Farrell at his best loves these challenges. And this weekend, England will face the full force of a restless Welsh rugby public and a Wales team who are desperate to get a win to their name after internal conflict distracted much attention this week.
It is not going to be easy for England’s captain. The returning Alun Wyn Jones will play his last England v Wales game in the Six Nations and he will be the main protagonist of getting Farrell off his game. Any decision that Farrell queries or argues the visitor’s case to the match referee, you can guarantee that Jones will be there in his face.
Farrell played better against Italy but was guilty of kicking away possession in the Italian 22 that his resurgent England pack had given him. England will not have many opportunities in the Welsh 22 and they have to make the most of them. Farrell has to manipulate space for the likes of Henry Slade to work his magic. Currently, Farrell is struggling to justify his starting place – his immense career and experience at the highest level is beginning to run out of credit. Guiding England to a famous win in Cardiff this Saturday will go along way to silencing Farrell’s critics.
Maro Itoje v Alun Wyn Jones a ‘tasty encounter’
Both locks Maro Itoje and AWJ are under pressure to keep hold of their places – if the press are to be believed. In Jones’ case, he has had critics circling over him for the last 12 months yet on his day, he is still the most influential second row in world rugby. Wales v England brings out the best of Jones, and he will be the leader in galvanising the Welsh team to be emotionally spot-on and ready for kick-off, after a disruptive week in closed-room meetings.
Maro Itoje was much better against Italy but, has struggled to lift his game to its usual world-class standards. However, this weekend an England victory will need him to perform to his very best against Wales.
Itoje remains a significant member of the England team given that he can disrupt Wales’ lineout and terrorise Tomos Williams at the breakdown. He is not far off being at his best and therefore the clash against his British Lions buddy Alun Wyn Jones will be worth the admission fee alone.
Key match-up: Ollie Lawrence v Mason Grady
The midfield clash is a fascinating one given that Wales are pairing a completely new midfield. Mason Grady and Joe Hawkins have taken over from the likes of George North and Nick Tompkins. It is a big call to make but an exciting one if you are a Welsh fan. Grady is 17 stone and six foot five and will pose a significant defensive challenge to Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade. Jack Hawkins in his short career has proven that he can survive in the test arena.
Here's a glimpse of new Welsh call up Mason Grady, the 6'5" and 110kg outside centre for Cardiff. Big Talent. pic.twitter.com/z4iKvvbAf4
— Andrew Forde (@andrewfrugby) January 17, 2023
Ollie Lawrence will be England’s go-to man to get his side over the gain line. Warren Gatland said as much during the week, even labelling Lawrence to his own ‘Warren-ball’ strategy that involved Jamie Roberts crashing over the gain line. Steve Borthwick will know that despite the physical attributes that a Grady/Hawkins partnership can give for Wales, it is still an excellent opportunity for Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade in particular, to test their defence [and inexperience] at this level.
Half-backs kicking duel will be an interesting contest
Dan Biggar’s exclusion was a surprise for such a big England v Wales game. Biggar has had a tough start to this year’s Six Nations not helped by firing up a Scottish team with his comments pre the Murrayfield showdown that Wales emphatically lost. Biggar like Farrell is a test match animal and lives for these clashes. Wales may miss Biggar in the first 40 minutes.
Owain Williams has had a career resurgence at the Ospreys, and here he has a huge role to play in guiding his team around the paddock on Saturday. The kicking duel between the half-backs – and particularly against Owen Farrell – will be a huge factor on which side comes out on top. Winning the territory battle will be decided by whether Tomos Williams and Jack van Poortvliet can give their box-kicks enough hang time for the chasers to compete.
Last summer, Jack van Poortvliet had a bright start to his career against the Wallabies although, he has struggled behind a sub-par England pack for much of the recent time. Like a lot of his England colleagues, he was better against Italy. This weekend, van Poortvliet is up against Tomos Williams on Saturday and these two are ‘live wires’ who prefer to run rather than kick.
Yet as in the past, the kicking duel is where many Six Nations games are determined.
Bench impact could affect England victory prospects
Both benches have a good blend of experience and talent. Henry Arundell is absolutely key to England’s final 20 minutes and he has the gas to rival Louis Rees-Zammit. England must utilise his abilities because he could make a significant impact to England’s attack. Wales have the calming influence of Dan Biggar to call upon which in a England v Wales test match is crucial. Let’s not forget Marcus Smith’s credentials either.
Make no mistake this is going to be one hell of a test match. Wales v England matches rarely disappoint in terms of drama and controversy. Pundits make Wales marginal favourites, on the back of a wave of emotion and passion from the last few weeks of drama – they will come flying out of the changing rooms and England has traditionally not started well. To win away in Cardiff, the English must change that trend, and claim a winning bonus point if the Six Nations title is ‘at all’ a possibility in 2023.
Wales v England – Saturday, February 25. Principality Stadium, Cardiff
“Main photo graphic courtesy of England Rugby facebook page“