'This year it is all about winning', now is the time for England to march on from their developmental stage and deliver, these were the overarching messages from the men in charge at the first squad announcement of the year just 14 days ago. In last year's RBS 6 Nations England matured greatly and to be true contenders come September that is what they will need to do again this year.
Now we all know that Stuart's hand has been forced in terms of selection 'a slightly reactive process' was how he described it to me, however in my eyes this is not a bad thing. Obviously having a full hospital wing is less than ideal however how many cries were there in the Autumn for a Luther Burrell, Jonathan Joseph partnership or cries for George Ford being given more game time? Now those selection decisions are a reality and we will see exactly what these individuals can do in the most intense environment that England will face during the RBS 6 Nations. A baptism of fire it may be but it is the reality and no-one can shy away from it.
Over the bridge Warren Gatland announced his team for the tournament opener, with a clean bill of health, two days ahead of schedule. Warren's 'we are ready' statement was a nice little hint at a mind game but nothing more than that for most of us could have named their starting XV two weeks ago, with our eyes closed!! Wales' game plan will be plain and simple; Gatland ball. It is the type of rugby we have come to know and expect from this experienced side; Warren's starting XV has 648 test caps between them and another 284 on the bench and that counts for a lot in terms of individual and collective understanding. This opening game in Cardiff Wales' to lose, they are expected to deliver and they are expected to deliver well, they have no excuses, not a single one. Up front the pack will want to push Hartley's frustration buttons, the crowd will help do that too and at the breakdown it will be every man for himself with some of the most physical forwards that the Northern Hemisphere has to offer clashing with colossal brute force. Wales will want to take it to England physically, they will want to punch the wind out of their 'excited' sails and exploit these fresh partnerships.
For England their first task will be to pacify the game's intensity, the Welsh crowd are loud, roof open or closed, the pyrotechnics and songs are always very jazzy... all must be silenced. How do we expect England to do that? Well there is no hiding from the fact that England will look to the boots of their half backs to push them into the right places, hence Ben Youngs & Richard Wigglesworth's inclusion over Danny Care for their solid kicking games. After the half backs have delivered it will be time to hand over to their forwards to dominant. England have progressed an expansive and dynamic game plan over the recent years and this should not be forgotten, especially not with Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Mike Brown Jonathan Joseph and co in their ranks. However the most complete sides in the world can deliver all forms of game plan and in my view this weekend a little more traditional 'up the jumper' rugby should be delivered. In short it is horses for courses. England's bench is a strong one this means that the starting XV, in particular the forwards, can work themselves into the ground and be taken off, blowing, after 60/65/70 minutes. These men will be replaced by others that can raise the tempo again exactly when it is required.
On paper this game is tight, personnel wise, even with England's injuries, it should be an arm wrestle and England must ensure that they do not let the emotion and atmosphere of Cardiff be the deciding factor. The Millennium Stadium is a pressure cooker, it is a vault of noise and animosity however England must rise above that and focus. Of course, that is easier said than done however that is Test Rugby and the prizes of RBS 6 Nations match winning momentum and World Cup bragging rights and memories are at stake.
Wales; 15 Leigh Halfpenny 14 Alex Cuthbert 13 Jonathan Davies 12 Jamie Roberts 11 George North 10 Dan Biggar 9 Rhys Webb 1 Gethin Jenkins 2 Richard Hibbard 3 Samson Lee 4 Jake Ball 5 Alun Wyn Jones 6 Dan Lydiate 7 Sam Warburton (Capt) 8 Taulupe Faletau Replacements: 16 Scott Baldwin 17 Paul James 18 Aaron Jarvis 19 Luke Charteris 20 Justin Tipuric 21 Mike Phillips 22 Rhys Priestland 23 Liam Williams
England; 15 Mike Brown 14 Anthony Watson 13 Jonathan Joseph 12 Luther Burrell 11 Jonny May 10 George Ford 9 Ben Youngs 1 Joe Marler 2 Dylan Hartley 3 Dan Cole 4 David Attwood 5 George Kruis 6 James Haskell 7 Chris Robshaw (Capt) 8 Billy Vunipola Replacements; 16 Tom Youngs 17 Mako Vunipola 18 Kieran Brookes 19 Tom Croft 20 Nick Easter 21 Richard Wigglesworth 22 Danny Cipriani 23 Billy Twelvetrees