Wales v England: Recent Six Nations superpowers meet amid a state of flux

Rarely has there been as much turbulence building up to this clash of grand old rivals than there has been this week – and this for a fixture at the mid-point of the Six Nations Championship between two teams with just one win between them.

Sport’s ever-evolving cyclical nature means Wales and England meet in Cardiff today with a lot less to play for than they usually do in these annual Spring clashes.

Between them they have won nine of the last 15 Six Nations' Championships and four of the last five prior to France’s grand slam last year.

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But this latest meeting in the atmospheric, spine-tingling arena of the Principality Stadium (the Millennium in old money) finds two teams in the midst of transition on and off the field.

Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach looks on during the Wales captain's run at the Principality Stadium on February 24, 2023 in Cardiff, Wales. (Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images)Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach looks on during the Wales captain's run at the Principality Stadium on February 24, 2023 in Cardiff, Wales. (Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images)
Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach looks on during the Wales captain's run at the Principality Stadium on February 24, 2023 in Cardiff, Wales. (Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Indeed, the fixture was in jeopardy as late as Wednesday with the brinkmanship of a potential player strike amid Welsh ranks.

Compromises were ultimately found with Welsh rugby powerbrokers over contentious issues like Wales’ 60-cap selection policy for players plying their trade outside the country and fixed-variable contracts across the regional game.

But it will be intriguing to see what mental scars there are from a chastening week around the negotiating table, and if there are any physical ones still lingering from a Six Nations campaign that started for Warren Gatland’s men with crushing defeats at the hands of Ireland and Scotland.

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Wales have not lost their first three Six Nations games since 2003, although their recent record against England in Cardiff is impressive, having won five of the last seven encounters.

England Head Coach, Steve Borthwick (Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images)England Head Coach, Steve Borthwick (Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images)
England Head Coach, Steve Borthwick (Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images)

England, by contrast, have a win to their name, but that came against Italy, who for all their improvements and wins over the likes of Wales last year, still do not offer a true barometer.

Victory in Cardiff, and a performance to go with it, will be a better indicator of the progress that is being made under Steve Borthwick and his right-hand man Kevin Sinfield.

Despite that they have made only one change with Anthony Watson coming in on the wing for Ollie Hassell-Collins for his first start in two years.

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It means Marcus Smith, a mainstay of the latter stages of the Eddie Jones’ era, will have to make do with a place on the bench, just as he did for the Italy game when Owen Farrell reprised the No 10 role.

“Marcus has been brilliant and every player on the bench has got a very important role to play,” said former New Zealand outside-half Nick Evans, who worked closely with Smith at Harlequins before joining the England set-up for the 2023 Six Nations.

“I was sat behind a pretty good player a lot of times in Dan Carter. I know what it feels like to be in that position, so I am able to give them advice.

“Are you just watching the game or actually seeing what’s happening on the field?

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“We have a real clear communication pathway to Marcus and what’s expected of him when he comes on.

“His role will be different at times, because it’s different to when you’re starting or you’re on the bench, but he will have a big impact.

“We’re not asking him to go out and be Owen, we’re asking him to go out there and be Marcus Smith.”

Wales head coach Gatland has made nine changes for England’s visit, with cap centurions George North and Dan Biggar – veterans of many a tasty clash between these two foes from opposite ends of the M4 – among those left out.

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Three of their British and Irish Lions colleagues, though – Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau – are recalled and bring a combined 343 caps to the table between them.

Gatland has selected 24 players to start in three Six Nations games this season, with his latest switches including a Test debut for 20-year-old Cardiff centre Mason Grady, Gloucester wing Louis Rees-Zammit returning from injury and Ospreys fly-half Owen Williams handed a first Wales start in the number 10 shirt.

Gatland said: “It’s trying to manage making a few changes where we are giving players with not much international experience some experience around them to make that transition as smooth as possible.

“But also for those experienced players to give that knowledge down to the youngsters. It is just a balancing act at the moment. When you hear comments from the other top international sides in the world, when they used to say (about Wales) ‘this side is never going to go away, they will play for 80 minutes, they are not going to give in’.

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“That is the level that we have to get to. We are not quite there at the moment, but we are working hard to get there.

“We expect them (England) to kick a lot on Saturday, and we have got to make sure we have got the tools to negate that and be prepared to make sure we stay in the battle.”

On the issues that have faced the Welsh players this week, England coach Evans offered: “I sympathise, but we know that any player who puts the Welsh jersey on will play with pride .”