Wales coach Warren Gatland has, for the past two weeks, attempted to start a war of words between his side and Martin Johnson’s England team. Although he has been joined in the discussions by his number eight Andy Powell, no member of the England side has chosen to take his bait.
Instead Johnson has had his squad prepare for the first match of this year’s 6 Nations Championship at a training camp in Portugal, away from the prying eyes of the media and, more importantly, out of earshot of Gatland’s chosen remarks.
The New Zealander started by bringing into question England hooker Dylan Hartley’s temperament, which many have done before him, and then changed focus to aim his attack at the Northampton player’s ability to throw into the lineout. By the end of last week anyone in Wales would have been forgiven for assuming that Hartley was on trial for some heinous crime upon the principality.
If this were not enough, Powell, who has this season been playing for Wasps having departed from Cardiff Blues at the end of last year following his now infamous trip down the M4 on a golf cart, felt the need to refocus the sights of the Wales squad’s criticism and fire toward newly selected Tom Wood.
Wood, at the age of 24, is set to make his England debut following injuries to England captain Lewis Moody and Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie. The Northampton flanker has made ten appearances in the Aviva Premiership since making the move from Worcester Warriors in the summer. In this time he has been dominant in both attack and defence for a Saints side that find themselves in third spot in the table after 11 matches.
None the less, Powell has labelled the Coventry born flanker as lucky to be making his debut, as well as stating that he has not yet been tested in the Aviva Premiership yet. This is in spite of Wood putting in a dominant performance as Northampton brushed aside Powell’s Wasps 37-10 away from home back in October.
It would appear that Wales, who have suffered a number of injuries of late, are trying to force England into a war of words, hoping that the animosity will boil over onto the pitch and the more volatile players in the side, such as Hartley, will either have to be removed in fear of the referee taking action.
England however, who also have their fair share of injuries, have instead chosen to focus on their preparations for the showdown at the Millennium Stadium in the Friday evening kick-off that signals the opening of this year’s tournament.
Key to those preparations could be the selection of Leicester’s TobyFlood at fly-half instead of Johnny Wilkinson inside of Shontayne Hape and captain Mike Tindall. Wales in comparison have selected clear first choice number ten Stephen Jones with Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts outside of him.
And although war has not broken out off the pitch we shall have to wait and see whether the two sides act any differently once they cross the whitewash.
Wales: James Hook (Ospreys); Morgan Stoddart (Scarlets), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Jamie Roberts (Blues), Shane Williams (Ospreys); Stephen Jones (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Ospreys); Paul James (Ospreys), Matthew Rees (Scarlets, capt), Craig Mitchell (Ospreys), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Bradley Davies (Blues), Dan Lydiate (Dragons), Sam Warburton (Blues), Andy Powell (Wasps).
Replacements: R Hibbard (Ospreys), J Yapp (Blues), R Jones (Ospreys), J Thomas (Ospreys), D Peel (Sale), R Priestland (Scarlets), L Byrne (Ospreys).
England: B Foden (Northampton Saints); C Ashton (Northampton Saints), M Tindall (Gloucester, capt), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); T Flood (Leicester Tigers), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), D Hartley (Northampton Saints), D Cole (Leicester Tigers), L Deacon (Leicester Tigers), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Wood (Northampton Saints), J Haskell (Stade Francais), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: S Thompson (Leeds Carnegie), D Wilson (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins), J Wilkinson (Toulon), M Banahan (Bath).