England and Wales eye World Cup boost
August 4, 2011
Leicester centre manu Tuilagi has been handed the chance to cement a place in England's Rugby World Cup plans © Getty Images
England and Wales will step up their Rugby World Cup preparations with the first of two scheduled warm-up clashes at Twickenham on Saturday.
The game will be England's first outing since capturing this year's Six Nations title - despite defeat in their final clash with Ireland in Dublin in March. England's leading players have been in camp since the end of the domestic season while some featured predominantly in the second-string Saxons' Churchill Cup victory in June.
Wales have been in action a little more recently with an experimental line-up beaten 31-28 by the Barbarians in a controversial clash two months ago that did little to lift spirits after a mixed Six Nations.
That campaign included a 26-19 reverse at the hands of England in Cardiff and they will stage a re-match at the Millennium Stadium next weekend.
England - Player to Watch: Manu Tuilagi has attracted plenty of attention in the last 12 months and the power-packed Samoan-born centre will be determined to hit the headlines again - for all the right reasons - with an eye-catching display on his Test debut.
England - Team News: Tuilagi will partner returning Wasps playmaker Riki Flutey in midfield while prop Matt Stevens makes his first international appearance for almost three years having recently completed a two-year drugs ban. London Irish fullback Delon Armitage is another to return to the mix after a long absence while Lewis Moody, who missed the Six Nations title campaign with knee ligament damage, returns to captain the team at openside. Blindside Tom Croft and No.8 James Haskell complete the back-row with Matt Banahan and Mark Cueto starting on the wings while Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Care fill the half-back slots. Saracens lock Mouritz Botha and Gloucester wing Charlie Sharples are both primed to make their Test debuts off the bench
Wales - Player to Watch: No.8 Toby Faletau caught the eye in the defeat to the Baa Baas and it will be interesting to see if he can back up that performance with another timely display to cement his place in the side.
Wales - Team News: Stephen Jones will become Wales' most capped player after being named at fly-half where he will be partnered by Mike Phillips. Rhys Priestland will start at fullback in place of Morgan Stoddart who faced the Barbarians in June. Jamie Roberts also makes his comeback to the side and will start at inside centre in place of Gavin Henson while Shane Williams replaces Aled Brew on the wing. Craig Mitchell comes in for Ryan Bevington at loose-head with Paul James switching sides of the scrum. The second-row sees the return of Bradley Davies and Alun Wyn-Jones - who wins his 50th cap. Sam Warburton leads the side from openside in the absence of injured hooker Matthew Rees.
Key Battle: While their may well be fireworks in midfield, the battle between the veteran No.10s - England's Jonny Wilkinson and Wales' Stephen Jones - will be pivotal. Both men have a battle on their hands if they wish to pull the strings for their respective World Cup campaigns so expect them to be central to proceedings at England's HQ.
Trivia: A total of 118 different players made their Wales debuts between the time Stephen Jones made his international bow against South Africa in 1998 and when Lloyd Burns made his first Test appearance off the bench against the Barbarians last month.
Stats: Stephen Jones' 101st cap sees him edge ahead of former team-mate Gareth Thomas in Wales' all-times standings but he is already his country's most-capped international (106) thanks to his service for the British & Irish Lions.
"We want the games to be as intense and as hard as we can make them, because that's what the World Cup is going to be when we get there." - England boss Martin Johnson urges Wales to bring it on.
"These are the men in possession of the jersey at the moment and it is now up to them to hold on to it and they will only do that with a performance at Twickenham at the weekend." - Wales boss Warren Gatland dangles a carrot to his players.
Prediction: Recent form, and the bookmakers, make England firm favourites but they are unlikely to get everything their own way. After weeks of pounding the weights and the training paddock, the pressure is now on to deliver on the field with the hosts set to score a narrow yet valuable victory and a priceless psychological advantage.
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