The 2016 Six Nations comes down to a war between England and Wales at Twickenham this Saturday on March 12th.
In many ways it’s been a tournament to forget for the double-defending champions, Ireland, who sit fifth following a draw and two narrow defeats. Lamenting a long list of injuries and the retirement of iconic leader Paul O’Connell, the only comfort Irish fans can take from this year’s series is the performances of new caps CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane. While this year is a bust for the Irish, the future does appear bright.
Turning to who now will now succeed Ireland as Six Nations champions, and it comes down to either England or Wales. Their mouth-watering encounter on Saturday will likely determine who wins the championship with a game remaining, and it has all the makings of an absolute war.
England, under new head coach Eddie Jones, have discarded the humble attitude that Stuart Lancaster had brought to the squad. Following a disastrous time under Martin Johnson, the Red Rose were in need of some image rehabilitation. Anyone remember the dwarf throwing incident?
Under Lancaster a more polite and respectful England emerged, but on the field they lost their edge. England are at their best when they have that slightly arrogant swagger and under new boss Jones they have it back, and then some.
Jones appears to have allowed his charges make decisions on the field as they see them rather than force them into pre-planned moves. It has allowed the squad to express their respective talents more readily. This is no more evident than with Billy Vunipola. The man is having the season of his life.
Appearing leaner than in previous years, Vunipola has excelled under Jones. Explosive and pretty much unstoppable with ball in hand, he is a shoo-in for the Player of the Tournament award. Add to his wrecking ball abilities the likes of fast men Mike Brown, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and new cap Maro Itoje, and England have clear championship-winning credentials.
Wales, under long-time head coach Warren Gatland, continue to show the form that saw them win Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012. For a small nation they have a phenomenal pool of rugby talent, almost New Zealand-esque in their ability to bring new players in.
Following their enthralling stalemate against Ireland on day one of the championship, they have been simply unstoppable in rounds two and three. A hard-fought battle against Scotland followed by a dominant victory over France has left Wales in second position in the table and the last real obstacle for England’s Grand Slam dream.
Where England have Vunipola, Wales have Sam Warburton and Talaupe Faletau, Vunipola’s cousin. Immense ball carriers and breakdown experts, they have once again been in imperious form this season. To counter England’s explosive back line, Wales have George North, Jonathan Davis and Jamie Roberts. At both out half positions both sides are similarly matched with Danny Care and George Ford for England and Gareth Davis and Dan Biggar for Wales.
This showdown sees so little to choose from between the two sides. Evenly matched it seems across every position on the field, this looks set to be an absolute war. Either side has the ability to punish the smallest mistake, each has genuine line breakers and each side is immensely physical.
When they last met in the final game of the pool stage of last year’s World Cup, Wales somehow snatched victory at Twickenham. This was the final nail in Lancaster’s coffin and many of the England side that lost that day remain in the squad and will be eager to take revenge next weekend, once again at the home of English rugby.
With many squad members released to their respective club last weekend while the Six Nations took its second break, it appears that everyone made it through their club games unscathed. With what is shaping up to be the game of the tournament, both sides will want to have all their big guns available for battle.
Make no mistake, England versus Wales on Saturday is a grudge match with scores to settle and a Six Nations Championship to be won.
It’s too close to call right now, but fans will be hoping for a high impact, high scoring game.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena.
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