Like almost every Wales-England game in recent times, Saturday’s match is almost impossible to call. Where one side is extremely strong, the other is very vulnerable.
Take the front row for example, where Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley, and Dan Cole will be looking to plunder every available advantage at scrum time. Conversely, Rob Evans, Ken Owens, and Tomas Francis will be wanting to just survive long enough for Rhys Webb to move the ball away from the set-piece.
England’s advantage in the front row is negated by Wales’ dominance in the back row. Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Ross Moriarty are a far more balanced selection to anything Eddie Jones can field at the moment.
While Maro Itoje might grow into the role on the blindside in time, he didn’t offer the impact required against France. Yes, he brings mobility and acts as a lineout target at the tail, but he didn’t carry like a 6 in Twickenham and that left England wanting.
When James Haskell came on he added some much-needed bulk and provided the go-forward ball that England lacked for much of the opening 60 minutes. Up to then, Louis Picamoles kept France on the front foot with a series of massive carries.
I came away from Twickenham thinking that Haskell had to start and believe it’s a mistake to keep him on the bench. I know he hasn’t played much rugby this season, but neither has Jack Clifford. The Harlequins flanker is a good player, but England don’t have any real experience at the back of the scrum.
Contrast that to Wales, who can field a Lions captain and a 47-times capped international either side of Moriarty. This is a worry, particularly at the breakdown, where England don’t have any real fetchers.
As a result, England can’t afford to let any of their ball carriers to get isolated for fear of Warburton and Tupuric turning possession over or winning penalties. With Leigh Halfpenny at their disposal, Wales have the ability to punish England from long range.
For me, England will have to keep the ball tight and attack the Welsh front five. It might not be pretty, but I can’t see how Wales will be able to deal with players like Cole, Hartley and Joe Launchbury around the fringes. The pressure they can apply should result in penalties that England can kick to the corner and start again.
Despite the presence of Alun Wyn Jones, England should be aggressive from the lineout and either look to maul Wales into the 22 or establish themselves in Welsh territory. I would have liked to have seen Elliot Daly picked so as to allow England pick off long range penalties, but I can understand why Eddie Jones has gone for the work rate of Jack Nowell.
I expect George Ford to bounce back and have a big game on Saturday. He was not at his best against France, pure and simple. Although I have heard some people make excuses for him and argue that his head was turned by stories linking him to Leicester Tigers, George has been playing under that speculation for months now and obviously knew about it long before anyone else.
Ben Te’o will be itching to get on the field and Eddie has shown the ruthlessness to remove an underperforming player during the early stages in the past. Holding Worcester Warriors player in reserve isn’t a bad thing either, his direct style offers England something different from the bench, as does Jamie George, Jonny May and Haskell.
For that reason, alongside our stronger tight five, I’m tipping England to win by four points, 27-23.
Andy Goode, Pundit Arena