The set piece: Having selected Geoff Parling in the second row to help ex-teammate Tom Youngs in the lineout, England will be missing a bit of weight in the scrum. Exeter Chiefs prop Tomas Francis has been given his first start for Wales, adding kilos to the Welsh front row, although the talent of Samson Lee will be missed, as he is only on the bench after suffering a calf strain.
England will be hoping their props, Joe Marler and Dan Cole, are sharper in the scrummage this week to stop the Welsh from getting the platform to release their backs.
The breakdown: He may be England’s talismanic captain, but Chris Robshaw is not your classic turnover-winning openside, whereas opposition captain Sam Warburton is, with another Welsh fetcher, Justin Tipuric, ready to come off the bench. This will be a key area that Wales will be targeting, particularly with Joe Launchbury only making the bench. I’m sure England will be hoping Cole, Brad Barritt and Sam Burgess can help combat the Welsh on the floor. This will be a key area in deciding the outcome. England need to front up.
Ford v Farrell: George Ford may not have been at his best in either the warm up games or England’s opening win against Fiji, however his performances were no cause for concern; he was having to play off the back foot after a weak performance from the forwards, not to mention playing alongside another new centre pairing. England scored the most tries in this year’s six nations by a substantial margin, largely thanks to Ford’s creative instincts. Since Ford made the 10 jersey his own, only Ireland have managed to stop England scoring tries.
However, he has been replaced. Owen Farrell is a more robust, kicking 10, and it could be said that he is better suited to combatting the powerful Welsh centre combination. However, this decision does unfortunately remind you of when Martin Johnson replaced an in-form Toby Flood with Jonny Wilkinson in the last World Cup. Let’s hope Stuart Lancaster isn’t panicking already.
The Centres: “Jonathan Joseph Injured”. Hearts plummeted, hopes were dashed, grown men cried. Then we remembered the other outside centre in the squad; Henry Slade, the lad from Devon with attacking spirit, fierce defence and a thumping left boot, and we got excited, dreaming of the spark Slade could light in our exciting back three. Lancaster announced his team but Slade was absent. Barritt will wear the thirteen shirt against Wales.
Barritt was picked at inside centre against Fiji for his defensive leadership but missed tackles, gave away three penalties, and looked set to be dropped for inexperienced league convert Sam Burgess. Instead he has been given a reprieve, albeit out of position. Lancaster has picked the bish bash bosh centre combination of Burgess and Barritt to play Wales at their own game and face Lion Jamie Roberts head on. However, the Welsh centres have the skill to bring their wings into play. England do not. It will be a cold night for Anthony Watson and Jonny May. They will have to be looking for the ball and latching onto Burgess’ offloads.
The Bench: Lancaster stated that Alex Goode’s versatility deprives Slade of a place on the bench. What? There is no player more versatile than Slade, who plays both 10 and 13 regularly for the Exeter Chiefs, often attacks in the 12 channel and, rumour has it, can also cover full back. Goode is a full back who, only at a push, could step in at 10. I know who I’d rather have.
Jack Nowell would also be a preferable bench option, having also played 13 for the Chiefs (a position where there is no cover against Wales) and full back at age group level, in addition to his regular wing slot. Exeter’s youngsters will be asking what they have to do to get a chance in this World Cup.
Despite injuries, the Welsh bench looks solid. Alex Cuthbert is lacking confidence but does provide experience should youngster Hallam Amos struggle in the Twickenham cauldron.
Wales’ injuries: With a lack of strength in depth being exposed due to the long list of injuries, Wales will just be hoping to come out of this encounter unscathed. The fifteen they field still looks strong despite injuries to key players Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb and Jonathan Davies, but some of those on the pitch are carrying slight niggles. This will be a bruising encounter and it is likely the injury list will grow which will be a huge worry for Warren Gatland with crucial games against Australia and Fiji on the horizon.
England: M Brown, A Watson, B Barritt, S Burgess, J May, O Farrell, B Youngs, J Marler, T Youngs, D Cole, G Parling, C Lawes, T Wood, C Robshaw (c), B Vunipola
Replacements: R Webber, M Vunipola, K Brookes, J Launchbury, J Haskell, R Wigglesworth, G Ford, A Goode.
Wales: L Williams; G North, S Williams, J Roberts, H Amos; D Biggar, G Davies; G Jenkins, S Baldwin, T Francis, B Davies, AW Jones; D Lydiate, S Warburton, T Faletau.
Replacements: K Owens, A Jarvis, S Lee, L Charteris, J Tipuric, L Williams, R Priestland, A Cuthbert.