The turnaround in England’s fortunes during the Six Nations has been unbelievable. Before the championship people wondered if they might finish third or fourth, but now they have a trip to Wales on Saturday for what I believe is a Grand Slam decider.
It’s not just that England have beaten Ireland and France; it’s the manner in which they’ve done it. In both the 32-20 triumph in Dublin and the 44-8 thrashing of Les Bleus at Twickenham, Eddie Jones’s men have shown a tactical maturity that they hadn’t before.
If England can summon the same level of performance as they did against Ireland, I think they’ll beat Wales. And if they do that, then the Grand Slam will be theirs – I don’t see them losing at home to either Italy or Scotland in their remaining fixtures.
This match could also make or break the Welsh Six Nations campaign. If they lose, their trip to Murrayfield in the next round suddenly looks a lot tougher before they then have to host an improving Ireland on the final weekend.
Warren Gatland’s team equalled their record with an 11th consecutive victory when beating Italy earlier this month. However, their purple patch seems similar to the one that England enjoyed in 2016-17 – they are winning games without playing brilliantly. That doesn’t bode well for the hosts, although they are sure to be lifted by the occasion and the atmosphere at the Principality Stadium.
England’s two changes to the starting XV are both enforced by injuries, to Mako Vuniploa and Chris Ashton, although I think Jack Nowell would have come in for the latter anyway. There is no room for Ben Teo’o, such is the depth of the set-up now.
For Wales, the selection of Gareth Anscombe ahead of Dan Biggar at fly-half is a significant call. They need to be tactically astute against England and Anscombe has been found wanting in some high-pressure games, although he can unlock defences better than Biggar.
Then at scrum-half Gatland has picked Gareth Davies, the third different Welsh No9 to start at this tournament. That fluidity could be a help or hindrance for the hosts. On the one hand, competition for places is good, but on the other there are benefits to a settled No9 and No10, as England have in Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell.
Make no bones about it, this is an epic Test match, the third and fourth-ranked teams in world rugby going head to head.
Having come within a point of beating the No1 team, New Zealand, in the autumn, if England can follow success at the No2 side, Ireland, with another at Wales, the No4, then it will make a massive statement ahead of the World Cup in Japan later this year.
The firepower of Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola is propelling them at the moment and keeping opponents guessing. It is also why Jonny May is scoring for fun, Henry Slade is playing out of his skin and the rest of the back three look like world beaters.
Teams want to be able to double up on Tuilagi and Vunipola, so there is a wariness to their defending that leaves England extra time out wide – and that can make all the difference at international level. I see England winning by between five and eight points.