Preview: Wales v England

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It’s the big one in Cardiff this weekend as the last remaining Grand Slam contenders meet at the Principality Stadium.

The mind games have been in full swing all week, there have been injuries to deal with and selection debates to be had, roof statuses to be decided, but it all comes down to 80 minutes on the field and it’s set to be a cracker.

Wales have taken the hard route to two wins from two, battling to the biggest comeback in Five/Six Nations history against France in Paris, before a much changed side made tough work of overcoming Italy in Rome.

However, those two wins have seen Warren Gatland’s side complete the national team’s best run of form since 1910, and have now not lost in nearly a year, with the last home defeat coming way back in November 2017 at the hands of the formidable New Zealand.

Josh Adams Italy
Josh Adams scores as Wales beat Italy

They can also look to a slightly bizarre stat for comfort, which sees Wales having beaten England in every year ending with the number ‘9’ since the end of the Second World War, the 27-3 hammering in 1979 and that Scott Gibbs try at Wembley in 1999 results that particularly standout.

Eddie Jones’ men won’t be worrying themselves with statistics though, as they ride the wave of serious form into Saturday’s contest after excellent performances away at Ireland and against France at Twickenham.

Finding settled combinations in key areas of the field have served them well, with the back row of Marc Wilson, Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola functioning well, as well as a midfield quartet of Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade running a perfectly balanced attacking game.

Add in the individual performances from the likes of Courtney Lawes and Jonny May and it’s no surprise they are top of the table with back-to-back bonus point wins, scoring 76 points while conceding only 28.

England are forced into two changes from the team that beat France though, with Mako Vunipola and Chris Ashton both ruled out through injury, Ben Moon and Jack Nowell are drafted in to the starting XV.

Ellis Genge and Joe Cokanasiga are selected to fill the vacancies on the replacements bench, while in a tactical move Brad Shields will cover the back row, preferred by Jones to Nathan Hughes who has fulfilled that role so far in the tournament.

England: Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May, Owen Farrell (c), Ben Youngs; Ben Moon, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, George Kruis, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola

Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Harry Williams, Joe Launchbury, Brad Shields, Dan Robson, George Ford, Joe Cokanasiga

Owen Farrell England
Owen Farrell starts at fly-half for England

While England are looking settled though, Warren Gatland makes 11 changes to the starting XV that won away at Italy in the last round.

Josh Navidi, Jonathan Davies, Josh Adams and Liam Williams are the only survivors as a number of familiar faces return the team, with certain selection decisions more interesting than others.

Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty and George North are all back as the recognisable players, with Leigh Halfpenny not yet deemed ready to return to international rugby.

Rob Evans is preferred to Nicky Smith at loosehead, while Samson Lee’s injury leaves Tomas Francis to start at tighthead. Behind them Cory Hill wins the battle for the second lock spot ahead of Adam Beard, who takes a seat on the bench.

Injury to Tomos Williams leaves Gareth Davies as the obvious candidate to start at scrum-half, while his half-back partner is Gareth Anscombe who wins the race to the 10 jersey ahead of the benched Dan Biggar. Outside them Hadleigh Parkes beats Owen Watkin to start at inside centre.

Wales: Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Gareth Anscombe, Gareth Davies; Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Cory Hill, Alun Wyn Jones (c), Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty

Replacements: Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith, Dillon Lewis, Adam Beard, Aaron Wainwright, Aled Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin

George North France
George North returns to the squad

It’s a tactically fascinating game, with many looking at how Wales will stop England, who have operated a spot on kicking game, clinical attack and ferocious defence so far to totally overpower and outplay Ireland and France.

On the face of it Warren Gatland has picked a slightly confusing team, with six of the eight forwards who started at Twickenham in last year’s defeat at the hands of England in the team, after being bullied around the field in that fixture.

Then behind them he has opted for Gareth Anscombe who thrives on front foot ball, leaving Dan Biggar who is a better operator off the back foot on the bench.

However, Gatland has a habit of springing a surprise tactic in a big game, and it is likely this one will be no different. An intriguing battle awaits at the Principality Stadium.

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