6N: Red cards leave Welsh dreaming of unlikely Grand Slam
Wales rugby coach Wayne Pivac came into the Six Nations with his job on the line. A pair of ill-advised entries to rucks changed all that.
Now, against all the odds, he has a chance of being a Grand Slam winner.
Pivac’s team is two from two at the start of the championship, largely because Ireland then Scotland each had a player sent off in similar circumstances in what wound up being tight losses to the Welsh.
Beat fierce rival England in Cardiff on Saturday and — provided beleaguered Italy can be seen off in Round 4 — Wales will head into the final weekend of the Six Nations with a Grand Slam up for grabs in Paris.
Not that Pivac is getting ahead of himself.
“We’re nowhere near the complete team,” the New Zealander says. “But a couple of wins gives you confidence.”
The recent form of Eddie Jones’ England team should give him extra belief, too.
Woeful in a first Twickenham loss to Scotland in 33 years, England was hardly convincing in a 41-18 win over the Italians a week later.
“I’ve just been playing rubbish,” England No. 8 Billy Vunipola said this week in a damning self-assessment which a number of his teammates could have given as well.
“At the moment, Eddie probably thinks someone has cloned me. The person he thought he had in his team is at home and the other person is here. … You know you’re playing badly when your mum and dad are the only ones texting you saying they love you.”
So, it’s tough to know what to expect when the English head back over the Severn Bridge, attempting not just to keep its title defense alive but to stop Wales taking the Triple Crown.
“You get to the third game, for most teams it’s a make-or-break game,” Jones says.
“Both teams face similar pressure.”
At least this is a positive type of pressure for Pivac, who won just three of 10 matches last year — his first in charge after replacing Warren Gatland — to leave his position under scrutiny, especially in light of a break clause in his contract that allows the Welsh Rugby Union to sever ties halfway through his four-year deal up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
A fifth-place finish in the 2020 Six Nations, secured only because of an expected win over Italy, could not be repeated. And that now looks unlikely — chiefly because of those game-defining red cards to Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony and Scotland’s Zander Fagerson.
Discipline can often key in Wales-England matches, even if the absence of a crowd at Principality Stadium amid the pandemic will affect the intensity of their latest meeting.
Pivac is boosted by the return of key personnel, particularly in a back division that has been overhauled from the Scotland game when Wales squeezed to a 25-24 win despite playing for much of the second half with a man advantage.
George North is back after a foot injury and wins his 100th cap, lining up alongside Jonathan Davies — also recalled — in a powerful midfield combination.
“He’s got a new lease of life,” Pivac says of North, who has mostly played as a winger in an international career in which he has 44 tries, second only to Shane Williams. “He’s highly motivated to go well beyond 100 games.”
The 28-year-old North will become the youngest player in test rugby to reach the milestone, beating Australia’s Michael Hooper by 28 days.
Winger Josh Adams is also back from injury, which has led to Liam Williams shifting to fullback, while Kieran Hardy got the nod over Gareth Davies at scrumhalf. Another player returning from injury was flanker Josh Navidi.
While North reaches a century of caps, England fullback Elliot Daly will get the chance to play his way out of his recent slump in form after being picked for his 50th appearance.
Vunipola retained his place — “I can’t lie, I need to turn up this weekend,” he says — but there was a change to the back row after blindside Courtney Lawes was ruled out after hurting his pectoral muscle in training on Wednesday.
Mark Wilson took Lawes’ place after being dropped for the victory over Italy in Round 2, while Jamie George returned at hooker in place of Luke Cowan-Dickie in the other change.
Wales: Liam Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Jonathan Davies, Josh Adams, Dan Bigger, Kieran Hardy; Taulupe Faletau, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Adam Beard, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Wyn Jones. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Rhodri Jones, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, James Botham, Gareth Davies, Callum Sheedy, Uilisi Halaholo.
England: Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell (captain), Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Mark Wilson, Jonny Hill, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Charlie Ewels, George Martin, Ben Earl, Dan Robson, Max Malins.
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