MUCH of the talk before the opening round last weekend was centred on England and Ireland being favourites for the title and also a much hyped resurgence by Scotland, but after how the latter was clinically overwhelmed in Cardiff, today's clash between defending champion England and Wales at Twickenham has now become the tie not to be missed.
So satisfied was coach Warren Gatland with his boys that he had no hesitation in naming an unchanged starting 15 so early in the week and that means having 10 Scarlets players, including six of the seven backs. Senior wing George North returns to the squad after a few months away due to injury but will be on the bench.
England has announced two changes, with scrumhalf Danny Care to earn a record 78th cap. The other is tactical and sees Jonathan Joseph starting at outside centre in place of Ben Te’o who drops to the bench. Bringing in Joseph incidentally was something Gatland had anticipated.
Wales is a very proud rugby nation and there’s very little else that gives its people much satisfaction than a win in rugby against England but its recent record against the Red Roses hasn’t been good.
But Wales remains the last of the five Six Nations opponents to beat England at its home turf of Twickenham in south-west London in this competition and that was by a 19-12 scoreline in 2012. That was the year Wales won the Grand Slam which was followed by another Six Nations title in 2013.
There was yet another Wales victory – 28-25 in a pool game at the 2015 World Cup but otherwise Twickenham has been a strong fortress for England since that last Wales’ win in 2012.
That the black market was asking close to 2,000 pound sterling per ticket a few days ago shows how big an occasion this game is (Malaysian time kickoff Sunday 12.45am).
With a crowd of 82,000 Twickenham will be one noisy stadium.
Another good game and a win by England will not surprise anyone considering its dominance in recent times but if the game goes the other way, it would add credence to the claim by Gatland that his boys would lift the trophy this year. That would be one heck of a competition for them considering that the team is missing key players Sam Warburton, Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb, Dan Biggar, Hallam Amos, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Priestland due to injury.
It will also be a historic moment for England scrumhalf Danny Care who will play in place of the injured Ben Youngs while also earning a 78 th England cap to surpass the record held by Matt Dawson.
The 31-year-old Care debuted for England 10 years ago but most of his 77 caps, 43 of them, were from the bench and in the last 27 Tests, 20 were as a substituted.
The decision to bring in Joseph is tactical and England coach Eddie Jones has said that Joseph will be used to harass Wales’ flyhalf Rhys Patchell who will be playing only for the seventh time for his country. However the presence of five Scarlets’ clubmates in the backline should provide much comfort to him.
Ireland kick off this weekend’s fixtures by hosting Italy in Dublin (kickoff 10.15pm Saturday) but do not expect the game to pose too many worries for the host.
In their last two Six Nations matches each time Italy let through eight tries. In the opening game last weekend, they allowed England to score seven tries, three of which came in quick succession in the last quarter.
The other tie of the weekend is the Scotland-France game in Edinburgh (kickoff 11pm Sunday), with both sides eager to put away the disappointing results from last weekend.
Scotland wants to prove that it can do much better than how it went down to Wales while France will not want new coach Jacques Brunel to suffer two straight defeats.
Of the six changes for Scotland by coach Gregor Townsend, the most crucial is the one to bring back former captain Greig Laidlaw to start as flyhalf, replacing Ali Price who drops to the bench.