Against the odds, Wales have started the Six Nations with back-to-back victories and find themselves top of the pile heading into round three.
After the fallow week, England will arrive in Cardiff looking to derail an unlikely Grand Slam bid from Wayne Pivac’s side.
A titanic tussle awaits and the form book – England have lost and won one match so far in this Championship – will go out of the window.
Injuries and performance levels have created some real selection dilemmas for Pivac as we approach the midway point of the competition.
Centre has suddenly become one of the most difficult decisions in the team, whilst Josh Adams’ return will cause a headache in the back three.
There have also been calls for Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies to be dropped after their performances at Murrayfield.
It makes for a compelling selection debate and here’s what Gist Vile’s rugby writers would do….
Mark Orders – Bring back Rhys Webb
Liam Williams; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Owen Watkin, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones; Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
The selection is tricky because there are injury doubts over a number of players, including Leigh Halfpenny, who failed a head injury assessment against Scotland.
If he’s ruled out, as there’s a fair chance he will be because he has a history of concussions, I would move Liam Williams from the left wing to full-back and keep Dan Biggar at fly-half for his goal-kicking and experience.
I’d also helicopter Rhys Webb into the set-up to start at scrum-half.
Pivac has questioned Webb’s pace and speed of pass, but the Osprey looked the best No. 9 in Wales in the Christmas derbies, with a standout display in opposition to Tomos Williams in the game with Cardiff Blues.
Are Johnny Williams and Jonathan Davies going to be either fit or match-ready to feature against England after injuries? What of Willis Halaholo, so outstanding off the bench against Scotland?
I’d ask Halaholo to reprise that same impact role and use Owen Watkin at inside centre. Stuart Hogg may have evaded his clutches at Murrayfield, but Watkin saved Wales with that last-ditch tackle on Duhan van der Merwe and is a player Pivac should be looking to use as a regular starter.
One change up front: Josh Navidi coming in at No. 6. If he’s fit, he starts. Always.
Matt Southcombe – No reason to rush Davies back
Liam Williams; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Johnny Williams, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Gareth Davies; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones; Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
There are some tough decisions to be made, particularly across the backline.
Centre is, of course, the big discussion point here. It has been quite a while since the Welsh midfield has been so up for debate. I see no reason to rush Jonathan Davies straight back into the fold given how well North and Williams went in round one.
I like the punch of Williams coupled with the speed and power of the 99-cap North. Half-back is the other contentious call but I think you need a steady hand in what will be a frenetic opening 30 minutes. Biggar’s goal-kicking will also be required if |Leigh Halfpenny doesn’t make the start line. Callum Sheedy and Kieran Hardy have shown what they can do when the game breaks up.
Josh Adams will have to come straight back in on the wing, there is no doubt about that. It may be time to give Liam Williams a run in the 15 jersey, having performed adequately there after Halfpenny’s departure at Murrayfield.
With Biggar starting at 10, you need creative sparks dotted around the backline and Williams is certainly that. The Scarlet also seems to be forming an exciting connection with winger Louis Rees-Zammit.
If Josh Navidi can recover in time, he’d be the only change to my pack. His physicality all over the field, with and without the ball, will be crucial.
Ben James – Bring in a new three-quarter line
Leigh Halfpenny; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Willis Halaholo, Josh Adams; Callum Sheedy, Kieran Hardy; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones; Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
Picking the team to face Scotland was simple enough. Count the bodies still fit and slot them into the side.
The side to face England is a slightly different proposition. Josh Adams will be back, while you’d hope George North, Jonathan Davies, Johnny Williams, Hallam Amos and Josh Navidi are all in contention too after injuries.
I’d only parachute two of those into the starting side, with North’s display at 13 against Ireland enough for him to get the nod. I’d expect Pivac to pair him with Johnny Williams, given how he’s talked about the two striking up a decent partnership, but I’d be temped to start Willis Halaholo in an all-new 9-10-12 axis.
Wales looked a threat with ball in hand when they had Kieran Hardy, Callum Sheedy and Willis Halaholo on the field at Murrayfield and I’d be inclined to get another look at that.
I’d also stick with Leigh Halfpenny at full-back, head injury permitting. He didn’t have his best game on the weekend, but Scotland did a good job exposing flaws in the Welsh defence, rather than Halfpenny in my opinion. He’s still world class defensively.
In the pack, you wouldn’t change much other than bringing in Navidi if fit. If he isn’t, I’d start James Botham ahead of Aaron Wainwright just to get a slightly different balance to the back-row.
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Simon Thomas – Go for broke
Liam Williams; Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Willis Halaholo, Josh Adams; Callum Sheedy, Kieran Hardy; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis; Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones; Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
I know what you are going to say, what about the goal-kicking?
I’ve agonised long and hard over this and considered whether to find a place for either Leigh Halfpenny or Dan Biggar.
But, ultimately, I’ve gone for what I see as the most threatening and dangerous back-line, placing my faith in Callum Sheedy finding his club kicking boots.
Along with fellow sub Kieran Hardy, Bristol’s Sheedy brought such a spark at half-back against Scotland and you just feel that creative, ball-in-hand approach is the way to go under Pivac.
You could, of course, start Halfpenny at 15 if he’s passed fit, but that would mean one of Rees-Zammit, Liam Williams and the available again Josh Adams missing out, so I’ve declined that route, while also going for the footwork and vocal presence of Halaholo at 12.
Up front, the pack picks itself, provided Josh Navidi is ready to return.
Then, behind, I’ve gone for broke, which is probably why I’m not a selector!