The Welsh have the English right where they want them.
On their side of the River Severn, riding a wave of praise and acclaim with the Six Nations trophy on the shelf and space set aside next to it for the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup.
Two teams going in opposite directions meet on Saturday at Parc y Scarlets, where England is the overwhelming favorite to restart Wales’ losing streak.
England has six wins in a row after blowing aside Ireland and Georgia in the last two weeks. Accounting for Wales will confirm England hosts the Cup final next week.
Wales was smashed by Ireland and was losing six tests in a row until last weekend when a makeshift side beat a limited Georgia 18-0.
Wales coach Wayne Pivac called it a step in the right direction but former Wales captain Gwyn Jones said they were still “miles behind” England. That was a fair call to assistant coach Neil Jenkins, who enjoyed only two wins in 10 matches against England.
"But, look, we are a certain type in Wales,” Jenkins added, “and we fancy our chances. We wouldn’t see it as a shock in here (if Wales won). But we need to be right on the edge and right on the money.”
The trouble is, Wales hasn’t been on the money in more than a year. A new year, new coach, new tactics, and new players add up to a rebuilding project. Wales has been regressing since test rugby's restart in the pandemic, and Pivac was forced to be bold in his selection, blending the core players who were crushed by Ireland with the experimental group who handled the Georgians.
Scrumhalf Lloyd Williams is making his first appearance since 2016, new flankers James Botham and Shane Lewis-Hughes go up against expert poachers Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, and 19-year-old wing Louis Rees-Zammit is marking Jonny May.
Only five starters survive from those who lost to England by three in March, including Nick Tompkins, who is forming a new midfield with Johnny Williams, who scored a try for England last year in an uncapped match against the Barbarians.
Tompkins, also English-born, knows well the level Wales needs to find quickly merely to be competitive on Saturday. He's on loan at Dragons from Saracens, where he's won four English Premierships and three European Cups with the likes of England mainstays Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, the Vunipola brothers, Jamie George and Elliot Daly.
“They bring it day in, day out,” Tompkins said with admiration. "Their competitiveness on the pitch is just as much on the training pitch. That's what makes them so good.”
Combine that determination with a great set-piece, a turnover-hungry pack, smart kick-chase, and brutal defense, and nobody has managed to handle England this year apart from France. Last weekend, England bossed Ireland by earning a couple of smart early buffering tries from May and spending the next hour tackling the Irish into irrelevance.
All that's missing from England's game, Itoje said, is a ruthless streak to make scorelines better reflect their domination. Itoje has won four of five matchups with Wales, but respects the Welsh for never knowing when they're beaten.
“Whether it's at the Principality, the Scarlets stadium, or a little park, they are going to bring that same intensity,” he said. ”Wales are one of the proudest nations around. We need to make sure we are ready.”
Coach Eddie Jones is on it. He knows when England goes into a match as the red-hot favorite, complacency creeps in.
“We’ve just got to tidy up our attitude to make sure we are 100% ready to go at the start, and play with an intensity that Wales have never faced before,” Jones said.
“Wales are in a situation they probably relish. They've been written off.”
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Louis Rees-Zammit, Nick Tompkins, Johnny Williams, Josh Adams, Dan Biggar, Lloyd Williams; Taulupe Faletau, James Botham, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Jake Ball, Samson Lee, Ryan Elias, Wyn Jones. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Rhys Carre, Tomas Francis, Will Rowlands, Aaron Wainwright, Rhys Webb, Callum Sheedy, Owen Watkin.
England: Elliot Daly, Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell (captain), Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Jonny Hill, Ben Earl, Jack Willis, Dan Robson, Anthony Watson.
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