England v Wales, Six Nations, February 6
Old foes look for jump start
Graham Jenkins
February 4, 2010
England captain Steve Borthwick smiles during a press conference, Pennyhill Park Hotel, Bagshot, Surrey, England, February 4, 2010
England captain Steve Borthwick in relaxed mood ahead of his side's Championship opener against Wales © Getty Images
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Tournaments/Tours: Six Nations
Teams: England | Wales

England and Wales will rekindle one of sport's greatest rivalries at Twickenham on Saturday with both sides under increasing pressure to prove they are on the right track not only for this year's Six Nations but also the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

Martin Johnson enters his second Six Nations in the England hot-seat with the Twickenham groans still ringing in his ears after a lacklustre showing in the autumn. A far from impressive victory over Argentina did little to alleviate the concerns about a lack of creativity that were painfully evident in the losses to Australia and New Zealand. England's cause was not helped by an unprecedented injury list that stripped Johnson of many of his leading lights and as a result his side's impotence was greeted with a large deal of sympathy rather than scorn. But now, with a relatively clean bill of health and the strongest squad of his brief tenure, any excuses are set to get short shift.

Wales were also some way off their best in November where victories over Argentina and Samoa failed to make up for the disappointment of defeats to New Zealand and Australia, especially when so much more was expected from them. The 2008 Grand Slam is now a distant memory while Stephen Jones' agonisingly short penalty at the Millennium Stadium, that could have captured the Triple Crown, may as well have missed by a mile. In addition, the injury woes that plagued their autumn campaign continue to linger but on paper the sides looks well-matched with the latest meeting of these two old foes shaping up as another mouth-watering contest.

A new Championship brings with it new hope but also renewed expectation. Few believe Johnson will not be in charge come RWC'11 in a little over 18 months time and it would take a spectacular run of results for his Rugby Football Union bosses to unseat him but public opinion may force their hand should England fail to deliver on the pitch. But the Six Nations is where Johnson's charges have produced their best form and he will welcome a timely return to form. The axe falling on Gatland may also be unlikely but Wales have a worrying predisposition to part company with coaches in the build up to the big one in the form of both Graham Henry's and Mike Ruddock's untimely departures. As a result all eyes were on the team announcements this week with each side throwing up one or two surprises.

In a bid to restore his side's cutting edge, and reportedly as a result of a player-led demand for a change of approach, Johnson has thrown down the gauntlet to his rivals with a bold selection. The nomad otherwise known as Mathew Tait is given his latest chance to deliver on the promise that he has only shown fleetingly in an England shirt. His last start came at centre came in the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final since when he has played a bit-part role for both club and country. His selection also sees his career come full circle since his international debut in 2005 when he was out-muscled and out-played by certain Gavin Henson.

With Henson currently in the rugby wilderness, Tait can rest assured he will not be the subject of another harsh lesson but only time will tell if the improvements in his defensive game will save him from further torture. In Riki Flutey he would have had a more than able cohort but his late withdrawal with a thigh injury will have caused Johnson and co a severe headache. As a result Toby Flood reverts to centre with question marks over what is a new-look pairing but their familiarity from their days as team-mates at Newcaslte should help them put England's much-hyped gameplan into action. Shontayne Hape had been set for a debut off the bench but a bug has ruled out the ex-league man, handing a chance to Dan Hipkiss. The return of Delon Armitage at fullback adds another dimension to the side in a position that caused particular concern in November and it is hopes the presence of the lively Danny Care at scrum-half will set the tone for an upbeat showing.

However, any bold intentions England have will require possession of the ball and that will require them to win what is set to be a fierce battle up front. The front row will come under close scrutiny any concerns will be allayed by a solid-looking lock partnership and a formidable back row combination including the steadying hand of Nick Easter. Borthwick retains the captaincy and has ridden a storm of criticism with the pressure now on the senior figures of Easter, Lewis Moody, Jonny Wilkinson and Mark Cueto to stamp some authority on the game.

England's cause in the all-important battle up front has been helped no-end by injuries to Wales hooker Matthew Rees and the dynamic prop Gethin Jenkins that denied Gatland the chance to field an all-Lions front row. Jenkins' late withdrawal will have caused a further headache for a coaching team already forced to train with two different teams as they awaited the result of Lee Byrne's appeal against a two-week suspension as a result of the recent 16th man fiasco. In comes the mobile but green Gareth Williams at hooker and the Paul James who can only boast five caps.

Byrne's subsequent clearance to play sees him return to the international stage for the first time since the Lions' tour of South Africa last year and his inclusion allows Gatland to plump for a new-look centre pairing in Jamie Roberts and James Hook. Welsh management are convinced the latter can enjoy a new lease of life at No.13 having most recently served his country at fullback and fly-half. Injuries have also wreaked havoc at scrum-half where Gareth Cooper has won the race for the starting berth on the back of his performance in training that sees him edge out regional team-mate Richie Rees. Gatland's decision to opt for experience over form has been met with accusations of conservatism and Cooper must justify his selection by offering an attacking threat often missing from his game.

Momentum is so often the key to winning the northern hemisphere crown - a fact not lost on either side and with just two home games the onus is on England to get the ball rolling on Saturday. But Twickenham no longer has a fear factor as far as this current crop of Welsh stars are concerned and they will relish the chance to prove that again.

England: D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), M Tait (Sale Sharks), T Flood (Leicester), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), J Haskell (Stade Francais), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins)

Replacements: S Thompson (Brive), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), S Armitage (London Irish), P Hodgson (London Irish), D Hipkiss (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton)

Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); T James (Cardiff Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), G Cooper (Cardiff Blues); P James (Ospreys), G Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Jones (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), L Charteris (Newport Gwent Dragons), A Powell (Cardiff Blues), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt)

Replacements: H Bennett (Ospreys), R Gill (Saracens), B Davies (Cardiff Blues), J Thomas (Ospreys), R Rees (Cardiff Blues), A Bishop (Ospreys), L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues)

Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)

Assistant referees: G Clancy (Ireland), S McDowell (Ireland)
Television Match Official: J Yuille (Scotland)

© Scrum.com
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.

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