by Tom Pritchard
WALES host England at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, in a game which could go a long way to deciding the winner of the year’s Guinness Six Nations.
The Red Rose have made a blistering start to the competition, seeing off reigning-champions Ireland in Dublin before blitzing France with a scintillating display at Twickenham.
Eddie Jones’ side top the table after the opening two rounds, however hot on their heels are Wales – who also have a 100% record after a dramatic win against France before an underwhelming win against Italy in Rome.
In a game that is likely to be hard-fought, which areas of the game are most likely to contribute to deciding the winner in Cardiff?
The opening stages: which side will start faster?
In this tournament so far, England have set their stall out from the kick-off, scoring in the second minute against Ireland before touching down with just 65 seconds on the clock against France.
Should they be allowed to make this kind of start against Wales, the hosts could be in store for a long afternoon. With a very confrontational defensive and an effective kicking game, England have shown that they are very difficult to catch once they have the initiative on the score board.
Wales have been renowned for their defence in the time that Shaun Edwards has been in charge, and the 52-year-old will need to call on all of his experience for this weekend’s game.
With a back three that is expected to include George North, Josh Adams and Liam Williams, Wales have players that are more than capable of running the ball back at England’s defence.
Should Wales be able to strike early on, it will put England into a position in which they have not experienced as of yet in this year’s Championship.
The gain line: which side will be on the front foot?
In England’s opening two games, they have been able to dictate the tempo, primarily because they have been solid in defence and powerful with ball in hand.
Against Ireland, they surprised many with how they are able to stymie Joe Scmidt’s side on the gain line; putting in a number of dominant tackles (tackles which result in a loss of yards gained in attack).
Wales will certainly be up for the challenge, and have a number of players who are more than capable of meeting England head on, as well as punching holes in their defence.
Alun-Wyn Jones, Ross Moriarty and Ken Owens are just three that spring to mind.
Moriarty is not a definite starter, with some fans and pundits preferring a back-row of Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi. However the Dragons man could be a key part of stopping players like Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi.
The kicking game: who can play in the right areas?
This part of the game, an important one for any successful team, is one which England have excelled in during their first two games.
Eddie Jones’ side have adopted a tactic of kick aerially to compete, and if the ball is regained, kick downfield into the space which has been occupied by the defensive player(s) who were attracted to the ball.
This was particularly effective against Les Blues, who, it must be said, were not at the races in attack or defence.
Key exponents of this tactic include Owen Farrell and Jonny May, two players who Wales will need to look to stop at source.
In normal circumstances, Leigh Halfpenny would be an almost dead cert to start, with his positional awareness in the backfield unparalleled by anyone else in world rugby.
However, the 30-year-old has not played since November when he was concussed after a late hit by Australian centre Samu Kerevi.
The Scarlets full-back returned to Wales training today, however it would be a surprise to see him in the starting line-up on Saturday.
Dan Biggar is a player who is adept at putting his side into good field positions, but after limping off in Northampton’s win against Sale on the weekend, his chances of starting may have suffered.
If this is the case, a lot of responsibility will be on the shoulders of Gareth Anscombe to pull the strings. Don’t count out Rhys Patchell just yet, the Scarlets stand-off has a big boot and will be eager to avenge his disappointing display at Twickenham last year.
If Wales give up the kind of territorial gains that England have enjoyed thus far in the tournament, their task will become all the more harder. The kick chase and kick defence will need to be near impeccable to limit England’s threat.
There is no doubt that these three areas will go a long way to deciding who comes out on top in Cardiff on Saturday.
A Wales victory will put them in pole position to go on and win the Championship, while a Red Rose triumph will set them up for a Grand Slam with Scotland and Italy up next.