"A game against Wales in my experience is like no other in terms of the intensity and the pressure that builds around it & you can build another 100% on that because it is a World Cup."
Those are the words of England's head coach Stuart Lancaster, a man that we all know isn't one to over exaggerate or embellish a point. The fact is that he is right, England versus Wales is one of the greatest rugby rivalries that there is and given the context of the tournament and their pool this encounter is quite simply, the largest of the lot.
The decision to change the 10/12/13 axis is a significant one and from an external position it is fair to say that it has taken a touch of computing. Arguably the call at fly half is one of the largest of Stuart Lancaster's career as for the past ten months England's attack has been centred around the man that will start on the bench, George Ford. Did his performance against Fiji deserve for him to be dropped? In my opinion it didn't however I am not in a position of authority. The message from camp is loud and clear; both are world class players and there is little to no gap between them in terms of quality. For this particular game, against this particular opposition they believe that Owen fits the bill and that has been reflected in the selection decision that has been made.
The fact is that England know Wales well and visa versa, Wales play a specific type of rugby, one that we all lovingly refer to as Warrenball and with it have a tremendously effective defensive system. In order to combat both of these factors England's coaching team have specific tactics and personnel in mind and Stuart Lancaster's perspective on this makes for interesting reading;
"Wales have a strength in their defensive system and a lot of their wins are based on their defence. You have to understand how it is constructed and what it takes to break it down, it's not all about playing shape out the back, it's about playing through the line. We learnt three years ago if you play against Wales in the wrong areas of the field, their defensive system - because everyone is in it in the line - will shoot you down. We didn't win the game in February by playing shape, we came through by dominating and winning the gainline. It was Ben Youngs running from nine, it was James Haskell charging on to the ball, it was genuine quick front-foot ball and putting the ball in behind them."
The message from Pennyhill Park is loud and clear, England aren't panicking with this change instead they are selecting for what they see in front of them. At inside centre Sam Burgess must deliver, he must show the world what he has been demonstrating to England's coaches for the past three months and Lancaster is confident regarding his ability to do this;
"We don't have reams of previous international rugby union games he's played in so we've had to judge a lot on what we training. A lot of people on the outside world will probably say 'how does that work?' When you've got 30 players in camp and we go 15 on 15 a lot of our games in training are full on games, admittedly taking the contact out. So, to a certain extent he's had to defend consistently against the likes of JJ, Brad, Henry Slade, George, Owen and I've watched him day in day out do that."
"This weekend, I've got to be confident he will defend well, which I am. I've got to be confident that he can deal with the big game experience and I'm certain of that. I've got to be confident he can carry the ball, get across the gainline and give us front foot ball and I'm confident he can do that as well. It's a step for him but I'm 100% certain he's ready for it."
Rarely has there been a test week in which so much debate has raged around selection and as a result little has been mentioned of the other elements that are vital for England to nail in order to beat Wales. The breakdown will be king, the set piece must not shake one iota and England's discipline must be squeaky clean. Wales may be slightly depleted due to injuries however when you read the names on their team sheet; Warburton, Wyn Jones North, Falateau, Roberts etc. they aren't exactly lacking in firepower or experience. As Graham Rowntree said today Warren Gatland will have his time fired up and they'll certainly have some tricks up their sleeves.
With the greatest respect, England's selection decisions, at fly half and in the centres, are bold however they have been made and it is time to trust the experts and get ready to be blown away by what has the makings of being one of the most intense clashes of the entire competition.
England Rugby: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Brad Barritt, 12 Sam Burgess, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Youngs, 1 Joe Marler, 2 Tom Youngs, 3 Dan Cole, 4 Geoff Parling, 5 Courtney Lawes, 6 Tom Wood, 7 Chris Robshaw (C), 8 Billy Vunipola Replacements: 16 Rob Webber, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 James Haskell, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 George Ford, 23 Alex Goode