Have you felt it too? Perhaps only once or twice a week, perhaps only for the briefest of moments, but inescapable nonetheless: the need to remind yourself that England and Wales will resume hostilities on Saturday. For while there have been half-hearted attempts to fan the flames, stir pots and start wars of words, it is difficult to remember a more anodyne build-up to this historical event.
There will be plenty for whom that is no problem at all and you wouldn’t know it at kick-off. Twickenham is sold out, there will be time to pause and remember two Welsh greats of yesteryear: Barry John and JPR Williams, there will be moving renditions of the anthems and there will be tears.
But remove the noise, the story and the feeling of theater and what’s left? Two second-tier Six Nations teams are embarking on the start of their World Cup cycle. Given he has appeared in 15 consecutive iterations of this match in the Six Nations, does it count if Alun Wyn Jones doesn’t play?
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Jones also didn’t play in this game two years ago, but his absence isn’t the only absence he felt keenly. Owen Farrell, Dan Biggar, Liam Williams and Kyle Sinckler are just a handful of names synonymous with this fight, for good and bad reasons, as of late. Joe Marler, the English agent provocateur, springs into action, but you sense that whatever his motivation for grabbing Jones’ genitals four years ago, he won’t be forced to do something similar again. It just wouldn’t be the same and you got the feeling Jamie George wasn’t entirely joking when he said: “I think I’ll definitely miss Alun Wyn.”
Not so long ago, Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland were in their element in weeks like this. Watching them take turns using lob grenades wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but both understood their responsibility to entertain during a seven-week period when a sport that exists in the shadow of football is given a chance to shine.
This week, however, the Six Nations bingo cards remain empty. Wales made waves on the roof last week, no one mentioned the Brynglas tunnels and it’s a safe bet the team buses won’t be headbutting.
All this raises the question of whether old rivalries are still relevant in these more sanitized times, when no one has taken anyone’s coal, water or steel. As Wales captain Dafydd Jenkins, who counts opponents Henry Slade, Ethan Roots and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso among Exeter clubmates, acknowledged this week, there is a familiarity among the players. Friendships even.
There was a time when England supporters would have bitten your hand at a 3-0 win over Wales, but Twickenham visitors these days expect more for their money – unsurprising when tickets fetch considerably more than £150 – and Steve Borthwick’s side has found a foothold. their followers have been doing a tough job lately. Playing at home has become a burden to the extent that they have won just three of their last ten games at Twickenham and so it stands to reason that arresting that form, whilst at the same time rekindling their bond with the supporters, will be at the top of their list this week agenda instead of exaggerated talk about killing the Welsh dragon.
However, rivalry finds a way to survive. Gatland again recalled his conversation with Neil Jenkins about Cardiff-born Feyi-Waboso’s decision to choose England over Wales this week. Gatland had previously revealed that Jenkins was not too happy with the young winger’s decision and he picked up the theme on Thursday. “I think that’s great, I just think you’re so proud to be Welsh,” he said. ‘If you don’t want to be Welsh, step aside.’
It doesn’t quite point out what these bastards did to Wales, but it taps into the national pride that sustains this event.
And that also applies to Borthwick. “My first game at Twickenham was in 1996,” he recalls. “It was English schoolboys under 16 against Wales schoolboys. That rivalry started then. I remember England v Wales, the last game of the Six Nations at under-18 level. It was in Narberth on a field with quite a slope. We won the grand slam that year with a drop goal. I remember the referee looked into the sun and couldn’t see it. But the Welsh full-back swore so he knew he had gone through the posts, kicked by Jonny to win the grand slam.
Caelan Doris will captain Ireland for the first time in Sunday’s Six Nations match against Italy in Dublin.
The 25-year-old, who moves from number eight to open-side flanker, has been selected to lead a starting XV, with six personnel changes from last Friday’s 38-17 first round win over France.
Munster scrumhalf Craig Casey will make only his fourth Test start, with center Stuart McCloskey, prop Finlay Bealham, lock James Ryan and back rowers Ryan Baird and Jack Conan also coming in.
Regular skipper Peter O’Mahony, who missed training earlier this week, is one of four established stars to be given the weekend off, alongside Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne and Bundee Aki. Jamison Gibson-Park and 2022 World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier drop to a much-changed bench, which also includes fly-half Harry Byrne and versatile back Jordan Larmour.
Tighthead Bealham, who became a father this week, joins loosehead prop Andrew Porter and hooker Dan Sheehan in the front row, while Joe McCarthy partners Leinster teammate Ryan in the second row after his man-of-the-match display in Marseilles.
Jack Crowley continues at fly-half, forming a partnership with his provincial teammate Casey, whose last two starts have also come against Italy. Ulster’s McCloskey joins Robbie Henshaw in midfield, with wings James Lowe and Calvin Nash and full-back Hugo Keenan retained in an unchanged back three. PA media
H Keenan (Leinster); C Nash (Munster), R Henshaw (Leinster), S McCloskey (Ulster), J Lowe (Leinster); J Crowley (Munster), C Casey (Munster); A Porter (Leinster), D Sheehan (Leinster), F Bealham (Connacht), J McCarthy (Leinster), J Ryan (Leinster), R Baird (Leinster), C Doris (Leinster, captain), J Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: R Kelleher (Leinster), J Loughman (Munster), T O’Toole (Ulster), I Henderson (Ulster), J Van der Flier (Leinster), J Gibson-Park (Leinster), H Byrne (Leinster), J Larmour (Leinster)
“From an early age the players play against each other and there is an incredible rivalry. And with the sad passing of such an incredible legend of Welsh rugby this week, you see the great history that lies within this game and this is its next step. We have a young team that will take the next step in the history of football.”
In other words, this rivalry will always exist. The stage has been set. Time for new key players to step forward.