Reigning grand slam champions Wales will be firm favorites to make it three Six Nations wins out of three over England when they meet their old rivals at the Millennium Stadium today.
Indeed Wales greats Barry John and Mervyn Davies have already said the current side can achieve something that was even beyond their star-studded team of the 1970s and win back-to-back slams.
This weekend may only be the second round of this year’s Six Nations but the mood amongst Welsh fans, which tends to veer between fervent optimism and deep despondency, with not much in between, is buoyant.
Scotland were seen off 26-13 at Murrayfield with some incisive rugby and only Gatland’s decision to send on a raft of replacements in the final quarter prevented a bigger margin of victory.
England, by contrast, looked labored in a 36-11 win at home to Italy.
Even the knowledge that talismanic wing Shane Williams, Wales’ record try-scorer, is rated only “50-50” by coach Warren Gatland after suffering an ankle injury at Murrayfield, may not dent Welsh self-confidence, with the Scarlets’ Mark Jones an able replacement.
England are struggling to play to their traditional forward strengths while doing little to suggest that, against top opposition, they’ve found a cutting edge behind the scrum.
Former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio, who worked with Gatland at Wasps, was blunt in his assessment this week.
“They are not playing at a level anywhere near what it takes to win top class international rugby matches,” he said.
However, Gatland said: “One team is smarting from a lot of criticism of recent performances and a lot of criticism of the coaching set-up.”
“Their backs are to the wall, and if they come away from there, then not just us, but everyone, will get the old two fingers up and they can jump on the bus and go away pretty satisfied,” he said.
The former Ireland coach added: “How many times has it happened in the past where people have rocked up to see a Welsh team expecting to win, and they’ve gone away disappointed? There are two teams involved here.”
Doubts remain about England captain Steve Borthwick — the lock was repeatedly driven backwards by Italy — but his second-row partner Nick Kennedy is an able lineout performer.
“We expect a set-piece game, with England happy to kick a lot of ball out and to compete at lineouts,” Gatland said after announcing a team on Thursday which featured fit-again Wales captain Ryan Jones after the Ospreys back-row withdrew shortly before kick-off at Murrayfield with a calf problem.
England manager Martin Johnson has recalled fellow 2003 World Cup winner Mike Tindall in midfield and brought in Joe Worsley at open-side flanker in place of Steffon Armitage, who made his debut against Italy. Indiscipline has proved a problem for England lately with the team collecting six yellow cards in their last two matches.
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