New Look Wales Are Vulnerable To England's Intelligent Six Nations Power Play

Eddie Jones' team have honed their game since losing in the World Cup final
07:00, 07 Mar 2020

It’s no secret that, on their day, England have a power game to match most teams in world rugby. Runners like the Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi are tough to stop and head coach Eddie Jones has often highlighted the importance of winning the gainline before bringing speedier players onto the ball. It doesn’t always work, however, as we have seen a few times over the past 12 months.

Last year in the Six Nations, Wales managed to neuter England's power runners through a combination of clever game management and the excellent Josh Navidi. They denied England set piece opportunities, limiting their outstanding first phase game, doubled-tackled Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola, and soaked up pressure throughout the first half before hitting back in the second.

Tuilagi has often been seen as the centre of England’s power games but, according to stats guru Russ Petty, Wales have won each of the four games they have played against England when the hard-hitting centre has started, suggesting they have been more comfortable than most against this approach.

But this Wales team isn’t the same as the 2019 vintage and this England team seem to have honed their game and added another level of intelligence to their approach after their RWC disappointment where they were out-powered and out-thought by South Africa. So will England’s power game undo Wales?

New head coach Wayne Pivac’s Wales side looks very different than his predecessor Warren Gatland’s did. It’s hard to take too much from three games against very different sides but Pibac was hired on the basis of his success coaching Scarlets. That team won the Pro12 in 2017 with a thrilling brand of rugby but came up short twice in 2018 when confronted by the carrying of Leinster’s pack, in the Champions Cup semi-final and the Pro14 final.

On both occasions, they simply couldn’t live with the dominance of Leinster’s power.

When Wales have looked good in this tournament so far, they have looked like Pivac’s Scarlets side in attack and that suggests they may be far more vulnerable to England’s power game this weekend than they have in the past.

Jones has made some changes to the matchday 23 that pummelled Ireland in the previous round, with both Sam Underhill and Jonathan Joseph dropping out (the former injured, the latter replaced). Mark Wilson, the versatile back rower has been recalled alongside the carrying strength of Courtney Lawes on the blindside. Elsewhere, the versatility of Tuilagi and Henry Slade seems to have trumped Joseph, with Jones giving himself the option of moving Tuilagi further inside to No12 later in the game.

Perhaps most significantly, Jones continues to employ a 6/2 split on the bench. Prior to this Six Nations, he had done so only four times in four years when coaching England. It’s now three games in a row and it looks like Wales can expect the same kind of treatment that England meted out to Ireland in Round 3, with no let up as coaches turn to the bench — Ellis Genge, in particular, looks a threat from the bench and Luke Cowan-Dickie, with five tries in 20 matches, knows how to power over the tryline.

Wales have looked good in attack this tournament, albeit without turning chances into points often enough, but their scrum has been vulnerable and they no longer play the type of game plan that allowed them to neuter power-based attacks in the past. The strength of England’s pack both in the set piece and at the gainline could make it a very uncomfortable outing for Pivac’s new look Wales side.