Stage set for Six Nations title showdown
March 15, 2013
Can Owen Farrell steer England to their first Grand Slam since 2003? © PA Photos
Grand Slam-chasing England will tackle defending champions Wales in a mouth-watering Six Nations title showdown at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
Head to Head
Victories over Scotland, Ireland, France and then Italy have taken England to the brink of their first clean sweep since 2003. But standing in their way are a resurgent Wales side that slumped to Ireland
An England victory by any margin would see them secure the title and the Slam while a defeat by six points or fewer would be enough to capture the Six Nations crown for the first time since 2011. If England lose by seven points but outscore Wales by three tries or more then Stuart Lancaster's men would also win the title.
But a Wales victory by seven points, providing they stay ahead of England on tournament tries - they currently have seven to England five - would see them retain the title. A victory by eight points or more would see them gatecrash England's party while the title would be shared if Wales win by seven points but England score two more tries.
England have won a Grand Slam on 12 previous occasions but have never wrapped up a clean sweep in Cardiff - and their hosts are sure to be relishing the chance to burst their rivals' bubble - as they did so memorably in 1999 - while at the same time cementing their status as Europe's top side. Add in a host of intriguing personal battles in what many view as a British & Irish Lions trial and you have the makings of an enthralling 80 minutes.
Wales - Player to Watch: Scrum-half Mike Phillips is never one to shy away from confrontation so expect him to be in the thick of the action both in defence and attack.
Wales - Team News: Gethin Jenkins will become Wales' third captain of this year's Six Nations having recovered from a calf strain and reclaimed his place at loose-head prop. He takes the captaincy from flanker Ryan Jones who has been sidelined with a shoulder injury. Justin Tipuric is promoted to openside in Jones' absence with Sam Warburton switching to blindside flanker. They have also named an unchanged backline for the fifth game running, with Mike Phillips set to become Wales' most capped scrum-half with his 77th Test appearance. Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts will make their 14th championship appearance together, passing the previous Wales best held by Ray Gravell and Steve Fenwick. Two changes on the bench see Paul James replacing Ryan Bevington and flanker Aaron Shingler featuring instead of a promoted Tipuric.
England - Player to Watch: Fly-half Owen Farrell will orchestrate proceedings in the cauldron that will be the Millennium Stadium. His ferocious spirit is set to fire his performance but will he keep a cool head when it matters most? And with his main Lions rival Jonathan Sexton sidelined through injury, the stage is all his.
England - Team News: England have made four changes to the side that edged out Italy in their last clash. A fit-again Farrell reclaims the No.10 shirt with Toby Flood dropping to the bench while Ben Youngs replaces Danny Care at scrum-half. Joe Marler gets the nod ahead of Mako Vunipola at loose-head prop while Tom Croft will make his first Test start in a year at blindside with James Haskell dropping to the bench from where he is poised to win his 50th cap. In a significant boost to England's title chances, Joe Launchbury has recovered from an elbow injury and will partner Geoff Parling in the second row with the latter also having shrugged off injury concerns
Key Battle: Wales openside Sam Warburton returned to top form against Scotland last weekend but faces a huge head-to-head with England counterpart Chris Robshaw, arguably the most consistent player in this year's Six Nations. Ireland's Sean O'Brien and Scotland's Kelly Brown may disagree, but this match-up could well decide who wears the No.7 shirt for the British & Irish Lions later this year.
Trivia: If England lose on Saturday it will be the eighth time they have failed to clinch the Grand Slam on the final game of the season. England failed in their final games against Scotland in 1891, 1990 and 2000, France in 1954, Wales in 1999 and Ireland in 2001 and 2011.
Stats: Since the beginning of the Six Nations in 2000, Wales have scored only 16 tries against England in 13 Tests. This compares badly with the visitors, who have managed to score 37 tries against Wales.
Betting: Fancy Chris Ashton to silence his critics with the opening try of the game? Bet365 are offering 15/2 for the England winger to be the first to cross the whitewash. Or how about Wales to do just enough to clinch the title - Bet365 are pricing win for hosts by 6-10 points at 11/2.
"You try to keep a cool head and you try to maintain calm and focus but everyone you see on the street is saying 'make sure you smash their heads in!'"
"The reality is that come 2015 we're going to be playing Wales in a huge pool game. The more experience you can get of playing under the pressure of these type of games the better for the players."
Prediction: This game has the makings of a classic - and how the Six Nations is in need of a thrilling finale after a largely forgettable championship so far. The game may have come just a little early for a rapidly-developing England side with Wales' big match experience giving them a narrow win but not enough to claim the title.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
As Scotland decides its future, Scrum Sevens looks at a group of players who transcended rugby both for country and the British & Irish Lions
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup