Wales v England, Six Nations, Millennium Stadium, February 4
Crunch time in Cardiff
February 3, 2011
Wales coach Warren Gatland and England manager Martin Johnson will see their sides lock horns once again on Friday night © Getty Images
The Six Nations is set to explode into life on Friday night when Wales play host to England in the opening clash of this year's Championship.
Clashes between these two old foes are never wanting in terms of intensity or excitement and this latest meeting is sure to deliver once again thanks to the prospect of the Rugby World Cup later in the year and a few choice words from Wales coach Warren Gatland in the build-up.
Injuries have done their best to ravage the hosts' preparations but England have also been stretched in terms of resources prior to what is set to be a Championship defining clash in front of a capacity crowd at the cauldron-like Millennium Stadium, where the visitors have not won since 2003 - when a certain Martin Johnson was captain.
The game is also the last Championship encounter to be played under the Friday night lights after a decision to scrap the idea as of next year - so expect fireworks one way or another.
Wales - Player to Watch: Wasps No.8 Andy Powell has been earning rave reviews on the domestic stage but can he transfer his rich vein of form to the Six Nations stage and banish once and for all his joker reputation?
Wales - Team News: James Hook will fill the No.15 shirt in the place of Lee Byrne while Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies have been paired in midfield. Morgan Stoddart earns a recall and starts on the right wing with Shane Williams back on the left wing. Injuries to Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones see Paul James and Craig Mitchell pack down at loose-head and tight-head respectively with Powell set to anchor a back-row trio that also includes Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton. Scarlets fly-half Rhys Priestland is set for a Test bow off the bench.
England - Player to Watch: Speedster Chris Ashton has emerged as a key weapon for England in the last year but will be making his first appearance at the Millennium Stadium. How will he manage the pressure of the occasion?
England - Team News: Flanker Tom Wood will make his England debut as a replacement for the injured Tom Croft. James Haskell fills the openside berth in the absence of captain Lewis Moody and Louis Deacon gets the nod in the second-row with Courtney Lawes also sidelined by injury. Centre Mike Tindall will lead the side for the first time.
Key Battle: All eyes will be on the first scrum of the game not only due to the IRB's quest to improve it as a spectacle but also to see how England's formidable front row trio of Andrew Sheridan, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole tackle their under-strength Welsh rivals. The recent verbal exchanges centring on Hartley's temperament may make it x-rated viewing.
Trivia: In the last nine meetings of these sides in Cardiff neither side has managed to overturn a half-time deficit.
Stats: These two sides had arguably the leakiest defences in the 2010 Six Nations. Wales missed 10.2 tackles a game on average and England missed 9.8.
"We were pleased with the way our lineout went in the autumn. England's imploded a little bit against South Africa, and a couple of weeks ago I saw Hartley go to pieces [for Northampton] against Leicester. He's always got a lot to say, hasn't he? Let's see what he has got to offer and how he fronts up against us on February 4." - Wales boss Warren Gatland fires a verbal broadside towards England hooker Dylan Hartley.
"If anything it's given me 10 days to really prepare myself and 10 days to really motivate myself. The motivation is there already, it's a big enough game and I want to do well in an England shirt. - Hartley build's Gatland's comments into his pre-match preparation.
The Odds: Wales' Shane Williams will be hoping to leave a mark on what is set to be his last Six Nations and bet365 are offering 2/1 on the wing wizard to cross the whitewash on Friday night.
Fantasy: England's Mark Cueto is unlikely to attract much support due to his try drought but imagine the advantage he will give you if he breaks his duck? Maybe he warrants a place in your ESPNscrum International Fantasy Rugby 2011 line-up?
Prediction: Fortune does not appear to be smiling on Wales at present and it leaves them vulnerable at precisely the wrong time. England will not get it all their own way but should have enough to return to winning ways in the Welsh capital.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.