Grunt up front gives Wales edge in battle for crown – Davies

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If only Wales had applied themselves as competitively in the first half of their opening game with Ireland as they have for the rest of the tournament, then they too might be chasing a grand slam today.

Instead of the dream scenario the fixture planners dared to hope for, only the Six Nations title is on the line in Cardiff today, with the grand slam the aim solely for Stuart Lancaster’s men.

That is because Wales were a shell of the team that won it all last year as they began against the men from the Emerald Isle at the start of February.

A Brian O’Driscoll-inspired Ireland surged into a 30-3 lead just after half-time and hung on for dear life in the face of an almighty effort from the Welsh.

Three games and six weeks later, Rob Howley takes his Red Dragons back into Cardiff’s atmospheric, expectant Millennium Stadium with the nation’s people believing again.

“The Welsh crowd have fallen in love with their team again,” said Phil Davies, pictured, who as director of rugby for Cardiff Blues has felt the anticipation grow in the Welsh capital this week following three straight wins.

“And that will be a big factor when you get into the stadium today. The nation is behind their team in a big way.”

Wales supporters have not celebrated a home win since they clinched a third grand slam in eight years 12 months ago.

Before Ireland, the southern hemisphere quartet of New Zealand, Australia, Samoa and Argentina all won in Cardiff in a damaging autumn series.

But after bouncing back from the Ireland loss with three victories across Europe, Wales return home once again resembling the effective force they were a year ago and within a victory by seven points of reclaiming their title.

“Wales have built up a good head of momentum from that second half against Ireland,” said Davies. “In the first half, Ireland were pumped up and they had the better mentality. Wales beat them in the second half but the deficit was too great.

“Since then they’ve been very direct and very attritional.

“The scrum is going well, the forward pack are working hard and Leigh Halfpenny is kicking his goals.”

But will the fear factor of playing at the Millennium Stadium affect them today?

“No not really,” countered Davies. “When it comes to games like this it is irrelevant. If it was a run-of-the-mill fixture then maybe it comes into it.

“But in games like these the home crowd will give them that extra bit of inspiration.”

If Davies acknowledges that his beloved Welsh are improving, then he knows that England – who he has an affinity for from 10 years at Leeds and a spell at Worcester – have been just as impressive.

That laboured win over Italy aside, England have been the championship’s dominant force.

“England have controlled games, particularly Ireland away,” said Davies, 49.

“Stuart has developed quite a nice all-round team. They’ve got a good kicking game, they counter-attack well and they can be direct when they need to be.”

“England will relish it, they have come through some big pressure games.

“But this Wales team is used to playing in grand slam games, World Cup semi-finals etc, they’re more experienced.

“It’s two very capable teams who are quite young in terms of average age.”

So with the stage set for tonight’s 5pm kick-off, where will the game be won or lost?

For Davies, despite the potential flair through the backs – in Manu Tuilagi and Owen Farrell for England, George North and Alex Cuthbert for Wales – if the respective forward packs are not on their toes then that will be where the fate of the title is determined.

Davies said: “The scrum contest is going to be fascinating. England will have the edge in the lineout. Wales are really strong at the breakdown and I think they have the edge there.

“The goalkicking between Leigh Halfpenny and Owen Farrell will be intriguing, then you’ve got the midfielder battle between Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies and Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt.

“There are some fantastic match-ups. But for me, whichever front five comes out on top will be decisive, and I think Wales edge that one in experience.”

Davies will have said as much, jokingly of course, to his old Leeds captain and coach Lancaster when they met up yesterday for a pre-match drink.

A cup of tea, rather than a pint of ale, might have been the drink of choice, but whatever the tipple, the banter would have been flowing.

“I’ve been delighted to see how well he has done,” said Davies of the man who succeeded him at Headingley. “He’s not exceeded expectations because I always had high expectations of him. He’s very systematic in his approach, he works exceptionally hard, and he’s very confident.

“What he has done that has impressed me most is he has re-established that identity of professionalism and pride in the England shirt.

“And that’s something everybody has noticed, not just in English rugby, but in the rugby world. People are sitting up and taking note about the values that have been re-established under Lanny.

“I want him to continue doing well... just not today.”