There is a certain symmetry in Wales being the visitors for England’s first home match of this year’s Six Nations on 26 February.. It could be the first major international sporting event staged in England after all Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted and it will be the first Six Nations match England have played at Twickenham in front of spectators for almost two years – since, as fate would have it, Wales were the visitors in 2020.
In many ways that match feels like a lifetime ago. The pandemic was taking hold, England’s following fixture against Italy had already been postponed but 80,000-plus supporters piled into Twickenham regardless. The government had evidently not grasped the seriousness of the situation, to the extent that Boris Johnson was a guest of honour at Twickenham that day – something that was subsequently held up as a reason for Cheltenham Festival going ahead a few days later.
It was hardly the last days of Rome but there was a febrile air around Twickenham, a sense that with growing uncertainty around the corner, a known unknown on the horizon, a certain wildness was taking hold. That was reflected on the pitch, too, as England eked out a 33-30 victory in what would have been remembered as one of the more dramatic Six Nations matches in recent history, but for the pandemic swiftly putting things into perspective.
As is often the case in these fixtures, England romped into a sizeable 20-6 lead at half-time but Wales came roaring back, inspired by a stunning Justin Tipuric try. England finished the contest with 13 men after Manu Tuilagi was sent off with Ellis Genge already in the sin-bin and Wales would surely have prevailed had there been another couple of minutes. It was the match when Joe Marler earned himself a 10-week ban for grabbing Alun Wyn Jones’s genitals and Eddie Jones a fine for his post-match comments about the referee, Ben O’Keeffe.
If Saturday is half as eventful it is not to be missed but as this fixture bookends an unprecedented two‑year period – the obvious caveat that the lifting of restrictions does not mean the end to the pandemic – it is worth considering England’s development in those 24 months.
There are mitigating factors – the empty stadiums being chief among them – but while England won the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup there was little cause for excitement. Perhaps that triumph papered over cracks because they were desperate in last year’s Six Nations before Jones began his “New England” overhaul in the summer, continuing it in the autumn and across this campaign. Senior figures were jettisoned, the Saracens-centric leadership group was replaced and perhaps most significantly England have had to learn to cope without Owen Farrell for all but 68 minutes since last March’s heavy defeat by Ireland.
Last week’s victory in Italy told us little other than that Marcus Smith can be electric when afforded time, space and front-foot ball and if there seems to be an obsession with the Harlequins fly-half it is largely because this England project and its progress are hard to gauge. There were positives against Scotland but familiar failings in the final quarter and inevitable periods of tedium against Italy. It is the forthcoming back-to-back matches at Twickenham against Wales and Ireland, then, that will shape the campaign.
Maro Itoje talks about a revitalisation taking place and in terms of personnel, against Wales you would expect about 50% turnover from the side who won the fixture in 2020. More than that, though, England seem re-energised and no longer suffering from the bubble fatigue of 12 months ago. “There’s been a change of personnel within the squad, coaches, and I guess a bit of a revitalisation of the squad and environment since before lockdown,” says Itoje.
“We probably made a step in the direction, in terms of style, in how we want to play the game. We want to attack and want to be a bit more attacking focused than we were in previous years, following on from the theme of the autumn.
“Set piece, defence and kicking will always be a strong part of the game, they are the pillars that will win Test matches, but we do want to add this attacking dynamism to our game as well.”
That last point will please a crowd eager to see England on the attack, having been sent home with a spring in their step by the dramatic victory over South Africa to bring the curtain down on the autumn campaign.
It cannot be a coincidence that by this stage last year there had been three away victories, discounting matches against Italy, but this time, with supporters back en masse, there have been none. Perhaps Jones had a point when raising concerns over his players’ arousal levels a year ago in the absence of supporters.
“Twickenham, a packed house, against Wales – it will be amazing,” says Itoje. “These are the moments. These are the games that you desperately want to be a part of. These are the games you shouldn’t take for granted because they are truly special atmospheres. They are always intense, tough games.
“There is a lot of passion, a lot of pride on both sides of the field. They tend to be enjoyable, high‑pressure. These are the games that you want to play.”