Wales, trailing by 20 points midway through the opening match of their Six Nations championship defense on Feb. 2, have rebounded to such effect that they are now convinced the title is within their grasp.
After winning three away matches in succession following a 30-22 loss to Ireland, last year’s Grand Slam champions can retain the title if they beat England by eight points at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow.
Seven points would suffice, if England do not outscore the hosts by at least three tries.
The Ireland defeat was the eighth in a row for Wales after they had won a third Grand Slam in eight years. Their captain Sam Warburton, an early favorite to lead the British and Irish Lions in Australia this year, was then injured for the win over France and relegated to the bench for the next match against Italy.
Restored to openside flanker for last Saturday’s win over Scotland at Murrayfield, Warburton had an outstanding match in attack and defense, and his return to form has softened the loss of Ryan Jones through a broken shoulder.
Jones captained Wales from the blindside flank in the last two matches in place of Warburton. His likely replacement is Justin Tipuric, who combined effectively with Warburton after coming on as a replacement for Jones on Saturday, with Aaron Shingler and Andrew Coombes also in the frame.
England recorded an epic win over the New Zealand All Blacks in November and this year’s side have responded effectively to every challenge thrown at them in the championships.
However, they are still inexperienced and somewhat anonymous compared with Wales, who have world-class players in key positions, from Leigh Halfpenny at fullback to Adam Jones at tighthead prop.
In addition, Warburton’s return to form has mirrored a steady improvement by Wales as a whole although, in common with other sides after a dazzling opening day, they have rarely been able to unleash their backs.
Warburton was responsible for four of Wales’ nine turnovers against Scotland and the scrum, with Adams Jones to the fore and boosted by the return of British and Irish Lions lock Alun Wyn Jones, was impressive against Italy and Scotland.
Scrumhalf Mike Phillips said the team had shown a lot of character after losing the first game.
“We have had to dig deep, but the boys have done that really well,” he said. “We’ve performed really well in the last couple of weeks, but then, we always knew we weren’t a bad team. We had a bit of bad luck losing games in the last seconds, we had to fine-tune a few things and tighten up.”
Center Jonathan Davies added: “When the pressure is put on us, we just thrive on it. This group of players are used to a big game environment.”
Home advantage will also count at the Millennium Stadium in the heart of Cardiff, which is an electrifying venue on big match days when the Welsh fans act as a mass choir.
“There has been a history of big games in Cardiff recently, where we’ve won three Grand Slams in the past eight years,” Wales’ defense coach Shaun Edwards said. “Most of our team has played in a Grand Slam game, some in two or three, and also a World Cup semi-final.”
“In the autumn we were battered by injuries, we were absolutely annihilated by injury in the games and even before that series started,” Edwards added. “We now have our best team back and hey, presto.”