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Premiership Rugby

Preview – England v Wales

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

After winning 10 of their past 11 contests, England have all the momentum – but Wales have history on their side and will be happy to draw on a startlingly apt omen.

Wales beat England 16-3 in their only previous World Cup meeting; a 1987 quarter-final encounter in – yes, you've guessed it – Brisbane, Australia.

That attritional slug-fest is remembered as one of the ugliest games in Rugby World Cup history, with the English perfecting their stick-it-up-the-jumper routine that bored foreign spectators for years.

Sixteen years later, England find themselves in the same neighbourhood, but – in terms of style – they occupy a different universe from the class of '87.

England coach Clive Woodward's 2003 vintage are now proven performers, and are rightly joint favourites to hoist the Webb Ellis Cup.

Such is the level of their swagger, that less than a week ago the prospect of facing Wales in the quarter-finals would have hardly left captain Martin Johnson and his troops quaking in their boots.

Indeed – just 11 weeks ago – England destroyed Wales with a second-string XV in Cardiff, inflicting a crushing 43-9 defeat in a RWC warm-up game.

But Sunday's encounter will be a very different affair. Wales proved that there is life in the old dragon yet by running the mighty All Blacks ragged for over an hour last weekend. If they can repeat that fervour – and extend it for another 20 minutes – St. George might not walk away from this scrape in one piece.

England, for their part, remain confident that they are on the right track to return to the UK as all-conquering heroes, but certain areas of their arsenal seem to have been a little short of TNT lately.

Yes, they have waltzed through the pool stages – recording a good victory against a battling South African side on the way – but press you ear up against their back row or midfield and you might hear a faint creaking sound.

Wales will be pressing a lot more than their ears against these areas on Sunday and will be hoping to slip through these allegedly weak spots as easily as they did against New Zealand.

England have dismissed all accusations concerning their fundamental deficiencies, with Woodward claiming his side has still got plenty of tricks up their sleeve – but there is no doubt that they are on red alert for the buoyant Welsh.

The England coach has spent the week talking endlessly about 'the fear factor' his side must overcome – of shouldering the burden of national expectation whilst simultaneously taking out pumped-up sides who have nothing to lose and everything to win.

England's defensive coach Phil Larder was one to voice his concerns, admitting he had been hugely impressed by Wales' attacking effort against the All Blacks, highlighting not merely the four tries they scored but their tally of 10 clean line-breaks.

But if you want a frill-free assessment of this quarter-final clash, look no further than no-nonsense Martin Johnson who evidently saves his verbosity for the team talks.

"Our last game against Wales was a World Cup warm-up match. This is very different. They're dangerous. They've got nothing to lose. The last Six Nations game they gave us a tough time," said the England captain.

Whatever the result turns out to be, this match will always be remember by England stalwart Jason Leonard, who will receive the applause of the Brisbane crowd for notching by his 111th England cap – equally the world record of France's Philippe Sella.

The number 111 seems to be in English vogue at the moment, the Men in White put 111 points on Uruguay last week and will now contest their 111st game against the Welsh.

With the overall scores tied at 49 wins each, England will finally find themselves ahead of their neighbouring rivals should they record the win on Sunday.

The phase 'to the victory go the spoils' has never rung more true.

Leonard, who plays his 13th game against Wales, has featured in over 10 percent of the nations' shared rugby history – now how about that for a history lesson?

Players to watch:

For England: England's back row has looked a little shaky of late. With Richard Hill still missing through injury, and Lawrence Dallaglio admitting he has yet to find his game Down Under, expect Neil Back to come to the fore. The Leicester veteran needs a huge game, and with Wales promising to play an expansive game Back should be in his element – stealing ball and killing moves in his usual quasi-legal manner.

For Wales: Wales kept the most potent weapon under wraps for the New Zealand game, but now Iestyn Harris is back. If Wales are still firing on all 15 cylinders, the former Rugby League star will have a busy evening shepherding his runners through the gaps. The centre will be pleased to know he has a admirer at the centre of the England camp – assistant coach Phil Larder: "I'm more worried about Iestyn than our players are because I know that in League he was absolutely dynamic. I've told our guys many times, but I'm not sure they believe me yet. Put him into their team and they present a massive danger."

Head to head: Jonny Wilkinson (England) v Stephen Jones (Wales): With Wales likely to spread it wide and England looking to keep it tight, the battle of the fly-halves will be pivotal. Wilkinson has get into his usual stride yet and there is talk that the pressure is getting to him – expect Wales' back row to add a little more. Jones will have enjoyed putting the All Blacks' noses out of joint with some cheeky moves and will be looking to embarrassing the English too. Wilkinson has the edge in the kicking department, but Jones is no slouch either – the fate of their respective nations' World Cup dreams lie at their feet.

Recent Results:In 2003: England won 43-9 in CardiffIn 2003: England won 26-9 in CardiffIn 2002: England won 50-10 in London In 2001: England won 44-15 in CardiffIn 2000: England won 46-12 LondonIn 1999: Wales won 31-32 in London

Prediction: Expect Wales to burn bright in the early stages and run the ball with abandon, and England will try and throttle the life out of them with their forwards. If England really have learnt how to perform that tricky mid-match Heimlich Manoeuvre that saves them from choking, expect a comfortable English win. If not, Wales could sneak a very famous victory. Zurich Computer Prediction: England by 52 points.Planet Rugby Prediction: England by 18 points.SportingOdds.com Prediction: England by 31 points.

The teams:

England: 15 Josh Lewsey, 14 Jason Robinson, 13 Will Greenwood, 12 Mike Tindall, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Matt Dawson, 8 Lawrence Dallaglio, 7 Neil Back, 6 Lewis Moody, 5 Ben Kay, 4 Martin Johnson, 3 Phil Vickery, 2 Steve Thompson, 1 Jason Leonard.Replacements: 16 Dorian West, 17 Trevor Woodman, 18 Simon Shaw, 19 Joe Worsley, 20 Kyran Bracken, 21 Mike Catt, 22 Iain Balshaw.

Wales: 15 Gareth Thomas, 14 Mark Jones, 13 Mark Taylor, 12 Iestyn Harris, 11 Shane Williams, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Gareth Cooper, 8 Jonathan Thomas, 7 Colin Charvis (captain), 6 Dafydd Jones, 5 Robert Sidoli, 4 Brent Cockbain, 3 Adam Jones, 2 Robin McBryde, 1 Iestyn Thomas.Replacements: 16 Mefin Davies, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Gareth Llewellyn, 19 Martyn Williams, 20 Dwayne Peel, 21 Ceri Sweeney, 22 Kevin Morgan.

Kick-off: Sunday, 20.00 local time, (10.00 GMT), Live in the UK on ITV1Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane Condition: Bright but cloudy – 28C Maximum, 17C MinimumReferee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)Touch judges: Dave McHugh (Ireland), Joël Jutge (France)TMO: André Watson (South Africa)

By Andy Jackson


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