By Tadhg Peavoy
Wales versus England is one of those wonderful sporting clashes that, whatever the occasion, is a must watch.
When the encounter decides who will win the RBS 6 Nations, and whether England will claim a first Gland Slam in a decade, the occasion becomes all the more mouth watering.
Ye gods! Sport scheduling has thrown up such an event this Saturday.
Rob Howley’s Wales and Stuart Lancaster’s England couldn't come into the tie in more different circumstances.
Wales began the championship with defeat at home to Ireland, where they were completely outplayed by their Celtic cousins, and looked a side that would be located far away from a championship decider with the red rose on 16 March.
But the spirit within the Welsh squad has seen them pull themselves up by their bootstraps, with solid – while not incredibly inspiring – victories over Italy, France and Scotland.
Without playing especially wonderful rugby they have racked up three wins on the trot and put themselves in contention for the championship. If they beat England on Saturday by eight points they retain the title.
England, by contrast, started in exceptional form, demolishing Scotland at Twickenham, before showing superb game management and defence to secure close wins against Ireland away and France at home.
However, the chariot came very close to being derailed in their last clash with Italy.
Stuart Lancaster made several changes to his starting XV and the result was a far weakened side which struggled across the line: in reality Italy were the better team last Sunday in west London and were extremely unfortunate not to come away with a first victory in 19 outings against European rugby’s superpower.
Historically, England and Wales have been very hard to separate on the turf, with the Red Rose securing 56 victories in total, and the Dragon 55 wins; 12 games have been drawn.
Recent clashes have not given one side an advantage either: in their last ten meetings each side has won five encounters.
But Wales have had the edge in the last two clashes, winning both.
Looking through the teams this time out, the feeling is most certainly that a very close game is likely.
They are without doubt the two best sides in the tournament and they both bolster very similar skills.
The back three of both sides is brimming with talent: all six players have a shot at making the Lions tour and this will be a very real audition for that chance.
Chris Ashton has had a very poor tournament to date and I expect that he may be targeted by Wales on Saturday. He’s been blunt in attack in the last number of games, but his defence has been awful: he’s a weak point for England.
In the centre, it’s a case of crash, bang, wallop, with four huge men set to collide in midfield.
The England duo of Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt has bettered Wales’ Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies so far in the tournament, and England look slightly more creative in this area.
Tuilagi could play outside centre - with Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll inside him at 12 - for the Lions and the young centre is getting better by the week.
At halfback, Owen Farrell returns from injury for England in place of Toby Flood, which could be crucial for the Red Rose. When Farrell plays well, England play well; his name on the teamsheet is a huge boost.
At nine, Mike Phillips versus Ben Youngs is probably a direct battle for the starting Lions starting scrumhalf spot.
Up front, Wales’ pack has improved immensely from their toothless showing against Ireland. Adam Jones has been the standout prop of the tournament, while Richard Hibbard has been a revelation at hooker.
The Principality should dominate that set piece, which will give Wales a crucial edge.
From 4-8 England look slightly the better pack, with captain Chris Robshaw looking like the red rose’s new Lawrence Dallaglio this season. But from 6-8, Wales as a unit may be able to afford their halfbacks that little bit more space to manoeuvre, which could be the key factor in preventing a first English Slam in a decade.
A fascinating game awaits.
Prediction: Wales to win the match by five leaving England win the championship on points.
Wales XV: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Dan Biggar, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins (capt), Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric, Toby Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Paul James, Scott Andrews, Andrew Coombs, Aaron Shingler, Lloyd Williams, James Hook, Scott Williams.
England XV: Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Man Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown, Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs, Joe Marler, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw (capt), Tom Wood.
Replacements: Dylan Hartley, David Wilson, Mako Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Danny Care, T Flood, Billy Twelvetrees.