Thursday 21 February 2019 2:59 pm

Liam Williams will be in the spotlight if England continue to kick against Wales with Leigh Halfpenny absent


Sport and Business Reporter at City AM. Email: michael.searles@cityam.com

Sport and Business Reporter at City AM. Email: michael.searles@cityam.com

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England exploited Robbie Henshaw's inexperience at full-back in the win over Ireland and then capitalised on Yoann Huget's inability to lead the backline in the victory against France a week later.

Liam Williams will not present such an obvious weakness in the Wales back three for Saturday's Six Nations showdown, but Eddie Jones's side have again struck luck with the news that Leigh Halfpenny's return has been further delayed.

Halfpenny surpassed more than 100 days out with injury earlier this week following a concussion in the autumn Test with Australia.

The 30-year-old had been pencilled in to return to action for Scarlets last weekend in preparation for Saturday's Grand Slam eliminator, but it was deemed too early and as such he has not been selected in the 23 to face England, despite completing a full week of training with the squad.

It is a huge blow to Wales, particularly given that he was “very, very close” to playing, according to Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac, who will take over as Wales boss after this year's World Cup, but it was ultimately not a risk worth taking following a serious head injury – his fourth concussion in six years.

Pressure on Williams 

It means Wales will once again call on Williams, a versatile back who is much more adept at playing full-back than the likes of Henshaw and Huget but still lacking the experience and quality that Halfpenny would have offered in what has the look of a championship decider.

Saracens back Williams is more often deployed on the wing by his club, with Alex Goode – who cannot get into the England set-up – the Premiership champions' established first-choice full-back.

Williams, 27, has proven himself a valuable asset for his club, country and the British and Irish Lions, thanks to his versatility but Halfpenny's absence could have consequences for the team beyond just his ability to clear his lines and under the high ball.

Warren Gatland expects England to stick with the tactics that have seen them get off to a flying start in the tournament and has highlighted how his back three will have to be at their best.


“They've done pretty well in their opening two games. Tactically, they've been direct,” Gatland said of England. “They've kicked a lot and got a lot of success out of that. Our aerial game will have to be good.”

Anscombe at No10

At fly-half, Gatland has handed Gareth Anscombe his second start of the tournament having given Dan Biggar the opportunity to impress against Italy – a chance he failed to take.

Anscombe struggled in front of the posts against France and his kicking game was poor in general, finding touch or the opposition instead of grass on a handful of occasions, albeit in difficult conditions.

Biggar came on with half an hour to play and was given another chance to prove his quality the following weekend but was sub-par as Wales limped to victory against Italy in Rome. Ultimately the decision came down to “continuity and training”, with Anscombe present all week.

As one of the best kickers in world rugby, Halfpenny would have eased fears over Anscombe's ability to convert kicks to points, but now the pressure will be on him once again with it vital Wales make the most of the opportunities that do arise.

Eddie Jones's tactics have been spot on so far but Wales are on an 11-game winning run and the 59-year-old has described them as “the best team in the world”.

“The only person I've seen talk us up is Eddie Jones,” Gatland responded.

England have already beaten Ireland in their own back yard. If they can beat Wales in Cardiff on Saturday then they will be more than half way to a Grand Slam and ascending to the elevated status that their coach is fond of bestowing on his next opponents.

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