International rugby is a fickle environment, it takes just one dire performance for fans and media alike to vilify the team in excruciating detail. Of course, when you have a small sample size of matches played over a relatively long period of time, the pressure is on you to perform now. Three weeks ago England sat, as they often do, as tournament favourites. They now travel across the Severn into the Principality pool, and swim with a Welsh team who smell blood in the water. England will still make the dive into Cardiff as pre-match favourites, but Wayne Pivac’s men will be swelling with confidence after they edged the Twickenham conquerors in Murrayfield.
Eddie Jones has stood firm in the face of his detractors in the media (of which there are plenty). Faith has been kept in Ben Youngs at scrum half and Elliot Daly at fullback, both who have been victims of calls to be replaced by Dan Robson and Max Malins respectively, who will sit on the bench this Saturday eagery awaiting their chances as Jones’ ‘Finishers’.
Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler make up England’s front row, George’s excellent lineout throwing will be a welcome addition to a lineout battle where Wales have faltered in recent times. Add in the aggressive ball carrying of the Sinckler and Vunipola and England’s physicality will be hard to match.
An injury to Courtney Lawes has forced a backrow reshuffling, with Mark Wilson returning to take his place. Billy Vunipola must also be thankful to Eddie. The Saracens Number 8 has looked off the pace in the first two rounds and even labelled his performances as ‘rubbish’ himself. His gain of a single metre from 10 ball carries in the tournament so far is a both a reflection of his own performance, and a testament to the defences which have restrained him thus far. Improved variety when attacking near the rucks will be paramount to England’s unleashing of Vunipola on Saturday.
Waiting for Vunipola and co will be the Welsh pack, most notably the return of Josh Navidi to the starting line-up. Navidi’s impact off the bench against Ireland was immense, and after missing out on the Scotland due to a neck problem, the Cardiff Blues flanker will be keen to use his enthusiastic and momentum sapping tackling ability to make a dent in the English pack.
Somehow, Wales have got their hands on another wunderkind winger. Louis Rees Zammit has made a startling transformation into Wales’ bright new star in the first two rounds. Picking up a try against Ireland and two against Scotland, with early contender for try of the tournament when he handily outpaced Duhan van der Merwe, and chipped over Stuart Hogg before racing past the Scottish captain to score.
Zammit should expected bombardment from the collective English boot, which will likely look to pressure the youngster under the high ball and force him to cough it up. His matchup with England’s own flyer Jonny May will be fireworks.
All in all, this weekend’s game is do or die for England. Win, and the opportunity to steal this championship and lessen the criticism levied at Jones will be within reach. Lose, and it marks the first time since 2009 that England will have lost two of their first three matches.
For Wales, the confidence is with them, no one is quite sure if they’ve been really good, or really lucky. A win over England and three wins on the bounce will give the Welsh that cautious optimism they were so used to under Warren Gatland, and step closer to a first Grand Slam under Wayne Pivac.