LONDON (AP) — England can stretch its Six Nations survival. Wales can save its season.
The most likely outcome is set to disappoint Wales when they meet on Saturday at Twickenham in the fourth round of the championship.
Since England was mauled in Paris on the opening day and almost lost its preordained grip on the trophy, its fingertips grasp has been firming. England rolled up its sleeves and swatted aside Scotland and Ireland. For now, England appears to be the side best prepared to challenge France if the Tricolors stumble in their Grand Slam bid.
But that’s a reasonably big if.
“It’s been business as usual for us,” England captain Owen Farrell said.
That includes grabbing secondary silverware. The Calcutta Cup was regained from Scotland, and the Triple Crown can be placed beside it if England knocks off last year’s champion at Twickenham.
To that end, England has recalled flanker Mark Wilson and winger Anthony Watson after lengthy injuries. Wilson hasn’t played since a knee op followed the Rugby World Cup final in November. He’s been fast-tracked into the side after Sam Underhill was injured against Ireland two weekends ago.
Watson was to start against France on opening day but was sidelined by a calf problem. His return gives England the same backline which started the World Cup final in Yokohama.
Curiously, invaluable loosehead prop Mako Vunipola was picked for the game then dropped on the advice of the England medical staff as a precaution against the coronavirus. England even said he was in self-isolation after returning from Tonga last weekend via virus-hit Hong Kong. But the medical staff of his Saracens club said Vunipola showed no symptoms of COVID-19, was freely mixing in the club, and available to play for the club on Saturday in the Premiership.
The virus’ bigger impact has been to cause England’s trip to Italy next week to be postponed to a date yet to be determined. If France does stumble, England’s shot at the title may not come until June or July or maybe later.
Wales would like nothing more than to snuff out all that emerging hope after its title defense was spoiled by consecutive losses to Ireland and France.
But of all five opponents in the Six Nations era, Wales’ worst record away from home is against England. The Welsh beat England at Twickenham to reach the 2015 Rugby World Cup quarterfinals, but in the Six Nations, they have won there only twice, and not since 2012.
“I remember in 2012 when we won,” Sam Warburton, the former Wales captain turned technical adviser, recalled, “Ryan Jones said to myself, Dan (Lydiate) and Taulupe (Faletau) to enjoy it because away wins at Twickenham are rare. I thought, ‘Ah don’t worry, we’ll come back and do this again.’
“But you learn it the hard way, it’s a very tough place to go. I only had two wins in my whole career there.
“To represent Wales at Twickenham and get a win is massive and you know how much it means to the country. It’s a much easier trip to the Co-Op (grocery) to get your milk because everyone is so happy.”
Like England, Wales brought back a couple of their long-term layoffs in No. 8 Josh Navidi and winger Liam Williams. Navidi hasn’t played since damaging his hamstring on Jan. 12, and Williams not since hurting his ankle before the Rugby World Cup semifinals in October.
Navidi was in for Taulupe Faletau, who was injured in club action last Sunday and hasn’t been able to train fully, though he was still good enough to make the reserves.
Bucking the odds and beating England would avoid a third straight defeat, which Wales hasn’t suffered in the championship since 2007, predating the Warren Gatland era. Captain Alun Wyn Jones said comparisons between Gatland and his successor Wayne Pivac were unfair.
“We are trying to play heads up and develop the style of play Wayne wants. That is a positive,” Jones said, “but we are scrutinized, and rightly so, by the scoreboard.”