The merry-go-round that is elite sport continues. Taulupe Faletau – considered among the best No 8s to ever play the game and the most experienced member of the Wales pack – is back to face England on Saturday after a six-month injury absence. But Louis Rees-Zammit, the 21-year-old jet-booted prodigy who has every chance of breaking Shane Williams’s try scoring record, finds himself out in the cold.
Faletau and his 91 Test caps return to the back of the scrum in what will be his first international appearance since he injured an ankle against South Africa on British and Irish Lions duty in July. The 31-year-old returned to the rugby field only two weeks ago, scoring a try in a 63-minute stint against Wasps for Bath. He played every minute a week after that against a physical Leicester team and that was all Wayne Pivac needed to bring him back.
“He’s had a couple of games under his belt and he’s been training well in the week,” the Wales coach said of Faletau’s readiness for England’s heavy hitters. “He brings good footwork in the contact area and he’s a very knowledgeable player on the game. He brings a wealth of experience. He lifts other guys around him.”
Experience was a key variable for Pivac when assembling his team. Only five of Saturday’s match-day 23 were present when Wales last beat England at Twickenham, when a late Dan Biggar penalty proved decisive in the 2015 World Cup. This, in part, is why Rees-Zammit has been omitted from the squad entirely and will return to Gloucester instead.
“It was a tough call for Louis to take,” was Pivac’s sympathetic assessment. “Everyone wants to be selected. For us, for this particular match, looking at the opposition and the way we think the game is going to be played, I think the experience of the other two, their work-rate off the ball, will come into play.”
Liam Williams and Alex Cuthbert – earning his 50th cap for Wales in the same week that he becomes a father – keep hold of the 15 and 14 jerseys respectively. They are joined by Josh Adams, who returns to his more natural position on the wing after the failed experiment of trialling him in midfield against Ireland in the 29-7 loss in Dublin.
“He’s chomping at the bit,” Pivac said of Adams, who missed the 20-17 win over Scotland in Cardiff with a calf injury. “He brings a lot of energy. I’m looking forward to seeing him out there.”
Pivac did not rule out a return to the centre for Adams but knows this is not the time for tinkering. Manu Tuilagi’s reintroduction to the England 15 elevates the home side’s threat and Wales will need two resolute defenders stationed on that inside channel. Pivac conceded that he considered starting Jonathan Davies but instead stuck with Nick Tompkins and Owen Watkin, who were commendable against the Scots. “At some stage we need to start settling on combinations,” he said.
Pivac also cited an area of concern that he said has plagued his team for long enough. Worryingly for him, this is a variable that England seem to get right.
“History will show they start very well and we’re probably on the other side of things,” Pivac said, referencing the third-minute try conceded against Ireland. “We need to make sure we start well and not let England get in their stride early.”
To do that they’ll have to keep Harry Randall quiet. The young scrum-half is a surprise starter ahead of Ben Youngs and that suggests England will look to play at a high tempo.
“That’s certainly what’s been talked about,” Pivac said. “The big challenge is to have that same attitude and the same willingness to throw ourselves about the park that we did [against Scotland].”
This will be a more daunting prospect. Wales have one of the key figures of its recent golden generation back but will look to keep their title defence alive without one of their future stars.