England and Wales in no-lose territory at Twickenham
So much is on the line for England and Wales in their Six Nations showdown at Twickenham on Saturday.
Lose and Wales can surely forget about successfully defending its title.
For England, the ramifications of a defeat are worse. Quite simply, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
While the pre-tournament expectations on the Welsh had been slightly tempered — at least externally — by their long and damaging injury list, the English just couldn’t afford to fail this year after their worst Six Nations campaign in 2021.
That triggered a thorough debrief by the Rugby Football Union, plenty of soul-searching about the state of the English game, and much questioning of whether Eddie Jones was still the right man to lead England to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Jones limped on — and oversaw an encouraging November campaign featuring wins over Australia and the world champion Springboks — but losing to Scotland in Round 1 of the Six Nations put England on the back foot.
Beating Italy in Round 2 was so predictable that it was irrelevant in the bigger picture. Now comes a huge month for Jones, starting with Wales’ trip across the Severn Bridge.
Considering England closes the Six Nations against probably the two best teams in the northern hemisphere in Ireland at home then France away, a loss to Wales would leave Jones’ team potentially facing even harsher scrutiny than last year.
Given these circumstances, the withdrawal of arguably England’s most destructive rugby player was a blow.
Manu Tuilagi was picked to play his first Six Nations match since March 2020 -- also against Wales -- after recovering from a hamstring torn in November. But a new scan on the injury-prone center revealed another hamstring issue hours later and he was ruled out.
Jones revelled in saying the return of Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes gave England “that bit of edge.”
But with Tuilagi out, Joe Marchant has been recalled and Jones won’t reveal his updated team until Saturday. He has a choice at No. 12: Marchant started against Italy, and Elliot Daly against Scotland.
Lawes completed return-to-play protocols and had been recalled to the lineup — as captain, to boot — while other changes in the forwards saw Kyle Sinckler and Luke Cowan-Dickie return to the front row.
The Welsh have also won one and lost one, having bounced back from an opening-round hammering by Ireland to eke out a victory over Scotland in Cardiff.
The title defense rumbles on but back-to-back games against England and France could bring it stuttering to a halt, especially with key players such as captain Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Ken Owens and George North still unavailable because of injury.
There is one talisman Wales can call upon after a long injury absence, though, with No. 8 Taulupe Faletau returning after nearly a year away from international rugby. Faletau has been sidelined with an ankle problem for seven months but proved his fitness by playing in Bath’s last two matches in the English Premiership.
“From our point of view, he brings a lot of experience,” said Wales coach Wayne Pivac, whose other big call saw Josh Adams picked ahead of Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing.
Wales has not beaten England in the Six Nations at Twickenham since 2012. That needs to end if Wales has any realistic aspirations of keeping hold of the trophy.
“They will be tough opposition — they always are — and both teams are still in this competition, so there is a lot at stake,” Pivac said.
“We had a great result against them last year (40-24 in Cardiff), but we are going to have to play very, very well to get the same result this year.”
The match could see Ben Youngs become England’s most-capped men’s player of all time, with 115 appearances. Youngs is the scrumhalf reserve to Harry Randall for a second straight game.
England (possible): Freddie Steward, Max Malins, Henry Slade, Joe Marchant, Jack Nowell, Marcus Smith, Harry Randall; Alex Dombrandt, Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes (captain), Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels, Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge. Reserves: Jamie George, Joe Marler, Will Stuart, Nick Isiekwe, Sam Simmonds, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Elliot Daly.
Wales: Liam Williams, Alex Cuthbert, Owen Watkin, Nick Tompkins, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar (captain), Tomos Williams; Taulupe Faletau, Taine Basham, Ross Moriarty, Adam Beard, Will Rowlands, Tomas Francis, Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones. Reserves: Dewi Lake, Gareth Thomas, Leon Brown, Seb Davies, Jac Morgan, Kieran Hardy, Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies.
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