24 February 2023

5 key talking points as Wales prepare to end dramatic week with England clash

24 February 2023

England and Wales will collide for the 139th time when they meet in round three of the Guinness Six Nations on Saturday, ending one of the most dramatic weeks in the sport’s recent history.

Here, the PA news agency examines five talking points heading into the match.

It’s on!

Even by rugby’s self-destructive standards, a chaotic 10 days in the Welsh game takes some beating. Only an eleventh-hour agreement struck between players and union on Wednesday evening averted a strike that would have seen the Principality Stadium clash called off. For now the contract dispute is over, but it remains to be seen if the can has simply been kicked down the road in the face of significant financial and structural issues. And with problems also bubbling beneath the surface in the English game, it might not be the last threat to strike. The 2023 Six Nations has already produced several captivating encounters and it desperately needs to deliver another reminder of the sport’s value on Saturday.

Backs against the wall

Will Wales be galvanised or drained by a traumatic period in their history? After days of brinkmanship that for the most part ended in compromise, no-one really knows what to expect from Warren Gatland’s side. Additional uncertainty has been created by the nine changes made to the side thumped at Murrayfield in round two, with Lions stars George North, Dan Biggar and Liam Williams among those jettisoned. Wales have won only three of their last 14 Tests and have been routed by Ireland and Scotland already in this Six Nations. The sport needs the lift of an Anglo-Welsh classic, but the hosts are struggling on as well as off the field.

Borthwick targets the basics

While Gatland adopts a revolving door policy to selection for this Six Nations, England look settled with Anthony Watson the only change to the side that dispatched Italy and even that is enforced by Ollie Hassell-Collins’ knee injury. Steve Borthwick is targeting his first away win and on Thursday the head coach made another pointed reference to the health of the side he inherited from the sacked Eddie Jones in December. To “lift the team from where it has been to where we want to take it” Borthwick aims to strengthen the basics but while forward steps were taken against Italy, especially in the scrum maul and midfield, even a humdrum Wales will provide a step up in opposition.

England’s forward conundrum

Courtney Lawes is poised to win his 97th cap off the bench in what will be his first appearance since leading the July tour to Australia. Concussion, neck, glute and calf injuries have disrupted his season but his value is illustrated by England’s decision to recall the versatile Northampton forward at the first available opportunity. A fit Lawes creates a selection conundrum – under Jones he was an automatic pick and Borthwick will want to accommodate a player who has produced his best rugby in his twilight years, but who in the back five misses out? The back row of Lewis Ludlam, Jack Willis and Alex Dombrandt has functioned well, while rookie lock Ollie Chessum has excelled. Instead, and for the first time in his career, it is an out-of-sorts Maro Itoje who is vulnerable. As proved by overlooking Manu Tuilagi, Borthwick is unafraid to make brave calls so Itoje needs to deliver against Wales to tighten his grip on the number four jersey.

Bring the noise

Cardiff has been the graveyard of English ambitions in the past – just ask Stuart Lancaster’s class of 2013 – but for all the hostility awaiting in the Welsh capital, the visitors will embrace the occasion. Their most recent visit took place behind closed doors, stripping one of the game’s most febrile fixtures of much of its appeal. England players have been lining up this week to say they will welcome the noise and colour, with captain Owen Farrell offering a simple message to his team: “Enjoy it. Love it. It’s brilliant. What do you think people grew up wanting to play in? People used to grow up playing in the back garden thinking they were playing in front of 75,000 people.”

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