Gareth Dyer’s rugby union column

Billy Vunipola will be a marked man at Twickenham tomorrow

Billy Vunipola will be a marked man at Twickenham tomorrow

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Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every Friday for the Evening Post

Tomorrow’s victors at Twickenham will be in pole position to win this year’s Six Nations Championship.

An English win will in effect give them the tournament as I expect Scotland to beat France on Sunday, meaning the Red Rose will have an unassailable eight points in this year’s table.

It will then all be about winning in Paris next weekend to secure a first Grand Slam since 2003.

A Welsh win will put them in pole position with lowly Italy to come to Cardiff on the final Saturday.

If that is the case then the Dragons will curse not having seen the job through on the opening weekend in Dublin to complete their own slam.

The beauty of the fixture for the fans is that the game is too close to call.

It will be very much about which team takes their chances – or shows the most discipline if the World Cup game is anything to go by – which will determine the winners.

England can almost enter the game with a no-pressure approach.

I say that because at the outset of the tournament, no one was sure how quickly the new coaching team would get to grips with their new side, whilst expectations were low after a poor World Cup.

Hence, whilst international rugby is all about winning, England will be afforded some leeway if they lose, given the off-field changes and that they appear to be making progress on it.

Wales have won the two most high-profile games between the sides recently but every game is different.

It is who comes out on top during big moments that will decide who ultimately prevails.

Those looking for pointers from the World Cup fixture may be disappointed.

This England team is a different animal under Eddie Jones, whilst Wales are stronger in selection than they were in the autumn.

There was also a huge amount of rubbish spouted after the World Cup game.

I re-watched the game this week to see if my initial instincts were fair or whether I – as a Welsh fan -had been swept along in the euphoria that greeted the result across the Severn Bridge.

What was clear was that possession and territory were equal.

In fact, England had to make more tackles during the course of the 80 minutes.

They also gave away more kickable penalties through their own indiscipline.

Some of the penalties given away were in the ‘soft’ category but pressure can do funny things to players.

After going 22-12 up in the 52nd minute, the score was back 22-18 by the 59th.

Thus this idea that England were in a prolonged driving seat position was very much overdone.

In fact, for a key period from the 52nd to 75th minutes, England were under the cosh.

Wales looked far fitter and stretched the home side to breaking point.

Hence, two key areas for home supporters tomorrow will be to see if this England team is in better physical condition than they were in the Autumn, and whether they can maintain their discipline over the course of 80 minutes.

The return to form of Dan Cole is real bonus, as is the presence of Dylan Hartley.

This could give England an advantage at the scrum where the younger Welsh front row need to gain at least parity.

Cole will also have to ensure he – more than anyone – doesn’t give away his regulation six points through costly indiscretions.

Elsewhere, the game represents something of an altered image for those who have been long-time watchers of these Anglo-Welsh 
battles.

For years it was a case of which would prevail – the power of the England pack and their kicking game, or the wit and invention of the Welsh backs to score tries and play at pace.

Tomorrow it will be the home side who will look to bring the pace and invention of their outside backs, such as Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Jack Nowell into the 
game, with the passing 
abilities of George Ford and Owen Farrell pulling the strings.

They will launch Billy Vunipola at the Welsh defence to win them that quick attacking ball from which to strike. He will be a marked man.

The visitors will bring their direct style of physicality to proceedings and look to Dan Biggar’s kicking game to win them territory and points.

When done well it is mightily effective but it also leaves little margin for error.

If the teams are equally matched then there is the delicious sub-plot of a returning villain to the Twickenham pitch.

Referee Craig Joubert – the toast of Scotland – returns to the scene of the biggest World Cup controversy.

How he handles the occasion will be intriguing to say the least.

It would be human nature to take a safety-first approach to everything and make the game a penalty-fest.

It will also be interesting to see how his assistants and the TMO support him during the 80 minutes.

In a tournament where interference from the sidelines has been a feature, it could be a deciding influence come 4pm tomorrow.