Wales look to underline their authority
February 13, 2009
Favourtism sits comfortably with Wales coach Warren Gatland © Getty Images
Warren Gatland Andy Goode Martin Johnson Ryan Jones Andy Powell Mike Tindall Shane Williams Joe Worsley
Wales welcome England to the Millennium Stadium on Saturday night in the unfamiliar role of favourites to put one over their near-neighbours.
Warren Gatland's Wales side eased past Scotland in their opening Six Nations encounter last weekend to sound a warning to all their title rivals that they have no intention of relinquishing the crown they won so impressively last year. By contrast England failed to impress despite running in five tries against a largely shambolic Italy at Twickenham.
As a result a packed house in Cardiff will harbour high hopes of inflicting more misery on their visitors following victories at the Millennium Stadium in 2007 and a famous come-from-behind triumph at Twickenham last year. Such is the feel-good factor in the principality of late, some will even dream of eclipsing the record 25-0 margin of victory in 1905 or their eight try haul in 1922. However, they are unlikely to get things all their own way against an England team stung by wave after wave of criticism levelled at them since their victory last weekend.
Wales were easy on the eye for the first hour of their game against the Scots, conjuring quick ball and seemingly breaking the gain line at will before Gatland opted to ring the changes with the game won. That dominant display will not have been lost on England manager Martin Johnson who will demand that they raise the stakes when it comes to the physical contest in the hope of stemming the flow to the Welsh backline.
An injury cloud over the Welsh squad refused to lift this week and offered hope to an England side looking to leverage any advantage it can muster. Wing Shane Williams tormented the Scots with his usual mix of pace and skill at Murrayfield last Sunday and was originally named in the side for this wekeend's clash but an ankle injury has subsequently ruled him out. There were also concerns this week about No.8 Andy Powell, who took a more direct and destructive path through the Scotland defence, but he will line-up for duty after recovering from a calf strain.
The loss of Williams, who has scored 45 tries in 62 Tests, will be a significant blow for the hosts but Wales are far from a one-trick pony and are in-fact blessed with an abundance of backline talent. There was better news with the return to fitness of skipper Ryan Jones who returns to the backrow at the expense of Dafydd Jones and it is hoped he will pack down against Powell and the ever-influential Martyn Williams. In-form fullback Lee Byrne offered his latest masterclass last weekend and he will no doubt be a key component for Wales again this weekend.
England's detractors have pointed to a lack of cohesion and even fitness this week while former skipper Lawrence Dallaglio has slammed the attitude of some players but Johnson has offered the side a chance to silence their critics. In the only changes to the side that laboured past Italy, Johnson has recalled flanker Joe Worsley in place of Steffon Armitage while Mike Tindall gets the nod at centre ahead of Jamie Noon.
Armitage struggled to impose himself on his international debut and Johnson's desire to beef up his side has seen the London Irish flanker omitted from the match day squad in favour of the more experienced Worsley. Although more accustomed to the blindside role, Worsley has been chosen to make his first start in 18 months and will be tasked with making a sizeable dent in the Welsh defence.
Elsewhere, veteran Tindall reclaims the place he was handed last week only to be later ruled out with a back spasm. His direct running will be a vital weapon in the bid to disrupt Wales' centre pairing of Tom Shanklin and Jamie Roberts.
Andy Goode retains the fly-half berth for England despite being singled out by many for England's one-dimensional performance last weekend. He celebrated his return from international obscurity with an early try but failed to maintain that level of performance and his shortcomings will come under greater scrutiny in the pressure-cooker that is an energised Millennium Stadium. Again there is no place for Danny Cipriani in the squad with a fit-again Toby Flood providing cover from the bench.
England, along with Italy and Scotland, were so far off the pace set by their Six Nations rivals last weekend it was embarrassing for all involved. In contrast, Wales cruised home in third gear offering tantalising glimpses of their most devastating best.
A similar performance from England, lacking the pace, structure and intensity that such an occasion deserves, will see them put to the sword by their hosts. Gatland's well-drilled and talented team should have too much for an England side that has struggled to convince that they are united by a similar common purpose.
Don't be surprised to see these two sides go toe-to-toe in Cardiff but this match is unlikely to go the distance. Expect Wales' bid for back-to-back Grand Slams to be intact come Saturday night but they will have weathered a storm to preserve that dream.
Wales: Lee Byrne (Ospreys); Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), Tom Shanklin (Cardiff Blues), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues), Mark Jones (Scarlets); Stephen Jones (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Ospreys); Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Matthew Rees (Scarlets), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Ian Gough (Ospreys), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Ryan Jones (Ospreys, capt), Martyn Williams (Cardiff Blues), Adam Powell (Cardiff Blues).
Replacements: Huw Bennett (Ospreys), John Yapp (Cardiff Blues), Luke Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), Dafydd Jones (Scarlets), Dwayne Peel (Sale Sharks), James Hook (Ospreys), Andrew Bishop (Ospreys).
England: Delon Armitage (London Irish), Paul Sackey (London Wasps), Mike Tindall, (Gloucester), Riki Flutey (London Wasps), Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks), Andy Goode (Brive), Harry Ellis (Leicester Tigers), Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks), Lee Mears (Bath), Phil Vickery (London Wasps), Steve Borthwick (Saracens, capt), Nick Kennedy (London Irish), James Haskell (London Wasps), Joe Worsley (London Wasps), Nick Easter (Harlequins)
Replacements: Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), Julian White (Leicester Tigers), Tom Croft, (Leicester Tigers), Luke Narraway (Gloucester), Paul Hodgson (London Irish), Toby Flood (Leicester Tigers), Mathew Tait (Sale Sharks)
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Alan Lewis (Ireland), Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)