England, Wales collide with Six Nations title up for grabs
The stage is set for a virtual winner-takes-all game between England vs. Wales on Saturday at Twickenham.
We've been here before.
Barely five months ago, in fact.
On that occasion, it was a pool-stage nail-biter in the Rugby World Cup that will be remembered for England's controversial team selection, Chris Robshaw's brain freeze at a late penalty, a welter of Welsh injuries, and a stunning late turnaround. And when it was all over, it was Wales returning over the border with the win and England shaping up for an embarrassing early exit from its own tournament.
Now, the old foes are meeting in the next-to-last round of the Six Nations — and already the title is up for grabs.
A win for England and its first title in five years could be sealed with a match to spare, not to mention the team moving to within one more victory of a Grand Slam. A win for the Welsh would leave them needing to beat Italy — the wooden-spoon regular — at home on the final weekend to clinch a third title in five years.
"It is not a place we are scared to go," says Wales scrumhalf Gareth Davies, who scored that late, game-changing try against England in the World Cup. "We are looking forward to it."
While it will be pretty much the same Wales arriving at Twickenham, England has changed things round since the World Cup by hiring a new manager in Eddie Jones and a new captain in Dylan Hartley to replace Robshaw. The result has been three straight wins to open the Six Nations, albeit against the teams that make up the bottom three in the standings — Scotland, Italy, and Ireland.
Jones isn't even thinking about the World Cup meeting in September — "We're nothing to do with that game," he says — and his selection of an unchanged team reflects how happy he has been with England's progress.
He has chosen the biggest game of his short tenure to bring Manu Tuilagi back into the international fold, with the strapping center on the bench and ready for his first England action in 21 months after a recurring groin injury and a pre-World Cup conviction for assaulting a taxi driver and two female police officers on a night out.
Leicester coach Richard Cockerill says Tuilagi isn't ready to play a full game, and the center will likely be used as a late impact sub.
By implementing a self-imposed ban on taking to the media for most of the buildup, Jones avoided any controversy and mind games. That was until Thursday, when he ended his silence and accused Wales of scrummaging "terribly illegally" by pre-engaging at the scrum.
"We want the laws enforced," Jones says, "and if they are enforced we'll get an advantage in that area."
Those comments were in response to remarks from Wales assistant coach Robin McBryde, who says there are issues with England prop Joe Marler's scrummaging technique.
Wales is also unchanged from beating France at home last time out, a result that left Warren Gatland's team unbeaten and a point behind England.
Gatland also has put a fit-again potential game-changer on the bench in Rhys Webb, who has just returned to action after hurting his foot weeks before the World Cup.
The referee is Craig Joubert, whistling his first test since the World Cup quarterfinal between Scotland and Australia, which ended with a controversial penalty award and Joubert then sprinting off at the final whistle.
England: Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell, Jack Nowell, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, James Haskell, Chris Robshaw, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley (captain), Joe Marler. Reserves: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola, Kieran Brookes, Joe Launchbury, Jack Clifford, Danny Care, Manu Tuilagi, Elliot Daly.
Wales: Liam Williams, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Rob Evans, Scott Baldwin, Samson Lee, Bradley Davies, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton (captain), Taulupe Faletau. Reserves: Ken Owens, Paul James, Tomas Francis, Luke Charteris, Justin Tipuric, Rhys Webb, Rhys Priestland, Gareth Anscombe.