Twickenham will stage a momentous occasion on Saturday evening. For the first time in a generation, England face Wales without the inconvenience of having to confront a modern-day nemesis.
Eddie Jones’s national team will lock horns with their westerly neighbours, minus the familiar, formidable Lions captain, Alun Wyn Jones.
The last time these fierce rivals met and the lock colossus was not involved was way back in 2006, in the formative period of his epic Test career.
England will face Wales who are without Alun Wyn Jones for the first time since back in 2006
All the pre-match focus has been on another missing link, in the Red Rose ranks.
Manu Tuilagi will be missed and he leaves a hole in England’s midfield, but there is an even bigger hole at the helm of the Wales side.
England have learned to cope without Tuilagi, but Alun Wyn Jones has been a mighty influence on this fixture for longer than any player on either side has been playing senior rugby.
So often, he has bestrode these matches and dragged his team-mates along with him. Now, Wales will have to prove they can cope in south west London without his towering presence.
England are also without their long-term captain, Owen Farrell, but there is no doubt the Welsh loss is far greater than England’s.
England are also without long-term captain Owen Farrell (pictured) along with Manu Tuilagi
Two years on from the last time these arch-enemies met in the same packed arena — just before the first Covid lockdown — so much has changed.
As well as the absent captains and Tuilagi, so many other leading names are missing; Billy and Mako Vunipola, Watson, May, Underhill, North, Halfpenny, Owens, Tipuric, Parkes, Navidi. The list is long.
These are teams in transition and in that sense England have more hope than Wales, as there are so many newcomers who are banging on the door, demanding recognition. What Wayne Pivac would give for such a headache.
Sadly, the Wales head coach had to send Louis Rees-Zammit back to Gloucester to sharpen up his game and that was an unforeseen twist in the build-up.
Wayne Pivac sent Louis Rees-Zammit (pictured) back to Gloucester to sharpen up his game
At full throttle, he would have added a predatory edge and box-office appeal.
Younger fans would have relished watching him on one side and Marcus Smith on the other. Here is hoping his dip is brief.
This is a tipping point in the Championship; the sink or swim moment. Both sides have one win from two and the perception is that they are jostling in a mid-table cluster behind France and Ireland.
The losers will be consigned to a grim campaign, while the winners can convince themselves that they still have a title shot, although the reality may be somewhat different.
On the opening weekend, England lost against Scotland when they should have won.
The following Saturday, Wales beat the same opponents when they could have lost.
But Pivac’s men were painfully exposed by Ireland, who are still lying in wait for England, followed by the French in Paris.
On paper, this is the easiest game Eddie Jones’s side have left. That is the theory, anyway.
On paper, this is the easiest game Eddie Jones (centre) and his England side have left at the Six Nations
They will be driven to avoid a repeat of last year’s fifth-place calamity, while the Welsh motivation is to prevent the 2021 title triumph giving way to a jarring fall from grace. Despite that feat, there is still a nagging sense that Pivac’s regime is on trial.
There is a gulf between these teams in the World Rugby rankings, with England lying third and Wales down in eighth.
With France and Ireland officially behind England in the global chart, there is a fair argument that it is not the most accurate guide to the latest balance of power, but the bookies have England as firm favourites.
There has been no attempt by Jones to claim underdog status
There has been no attempt by Jones or anyone else from the home camp to claim underdog status.
There have been no mind games. It has all been relatively low-key and cordial.
Perhaps that is a reflection of English optimism, which is probably justified in the circumstances.
During Warren Gatland’s tenure and with Alun Wyn Jones as the on-field symbol of Welsh defiance and competitiveness, this was a vibrant, tense rivalry. But there are signs that an imbalance is in prospect again.
The regional and grass-roots game in Wales is in crisis. That is no wild exaggeration. There are fears of a decline in the talent production lines which have worked so well for so long.
In contrast, English issues are relatively modest. The last week has confirmed yet again that there is no one else at Jones’s disposal quite like Tuilagi. That is a recurring problem.
In time, it would be good to see Ollie Lawrence given another chance to re-emerge as the midfield heir but, for now, England should have sufficient firepower for the task at hand.
Having Courtney Lawes back as captain is a huge boost. The veteran Northampton forward has not played for the best part of six weeks, so it remains to be seen if he can immediately hit the heights of performance he reached in the autumn.
Courtney Lawes (pictured) is set to captain England after missing the last six weeks through injury
But what he certainly can do is provide a reassuring, calming influence, while England will not have to contend with the canny antagonism which Alun Wyn Jones is such a renowned master of.
Without him, Wales are very unlikely to produce a seismic upset — which it would be if they were to win at Twickenham for the first time since Scott Williams’ famous smash-and-grab raid a decade ago.
Jones will expect the bottom-line objective of victory to be achieved, but he will also want to see further evidence that his team can adapt to sudden upheaval, just as they did in trumping the world- champion Springboks in November.
Without Tuilagi, but with Harry Randall alongside Smith, this is a day when the ‘new England’ vision can gain substance and momentum, shape and fluency.
It is unlikely to fall into place quickly enough for a European conquest this year, but it can offer positive signs that the bigger-picture global mission culminating in 2023 is back on track.
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