LONDON, February 5 – Martin Johnson's England have a chance to make good on their manager's claim that this is the "best squad" of his 18-month reign when they face Wales in Saturday's Six Nations opener here at Twickenham.The 2003 World Cup winning captain has overseen just six wins from his 14 Tests in charge and, while his position is not under immediate threat, there are still those who question the wisdom of appointing someone with no prior coaching experience to be in charge.
The series record between England and Wales is neatly tied at 53 wins apiece and the similarities don’t stop with that statistic.
Both teams come into this game having each been beaten by New Zealand and Australia in November but bolstered by the return of their first-choice full-backs (England’s Delon Armitage and Wales’s Lee Byrne) from injury.
They also hope this match will go some way to answering the question of where best to play two undeniably talented backs in England’s Mathew Tait and Wales’s James Hook, who’ve struggled to nail down a place in their respective Test sides but this weekend each start at outside centre.
However, there are some important differences too.
Wales, who two years ago marked coach Warren Gatland’s first Six Nations match in charge with a come from behind victory at Twickenham, a win that led to a grand slam have shown they can think on their feet.
However, for all Johnson’s assurances he wants players to trust their instincts, the jury remains out on England’s ability to vary their game and ‘play what they see’.
Fit again New Zealand-born inside centre Riki Flutey has a well deserved reputation as a playmaker and England will look to him to take the creative burden off the shoulders of fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, just as Will Greenwood did in the England team captained by Johnson that won the World Cup.
England, admittedly having to cope with a raft of injuries, struggled to play even a limited game in November and, whatever style they opt for this weekend, there will have to be a marked improvement in their efficiency and execution if they are to avoid a fourth straight Six Nations loss to Wales.
No 8 Nick Easter summed up the challenge facing an England side criticised in November for looking forlornly to the stands when things were going wrong.
"We have picked a side, now let’s use their strengths as individuals and play heads-up rugby. If someone sees something, ‘Bang’, it is on," said Easter.
"But that does not just mean giving it to the back three every time because that becomes too predictable. We are the guys out on the pitch and making those decisions. You can’t be looking up to the stands."
Wales looked to have an advantage at the scrum going into this match, which marks the centenary of the first Test at Twickenham, when England beat Wales 11-6 in 1910.
But what was potentially an all British and Irish Lions front-row was reduced to one when loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins joined hooker Matthew Rees on the sidelines on Thursday.
That left Adam Jones packing down alongside Gareth Williams and Paul James.
Wales have also lost experienced scrum-halves Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel through injury with Gareth Cooper now starting in the No 9 shirt.
But Byrne, one of nine Lions still in Wales’s starting side, said: "I have faith in all the boys who went on that Lions tour and that man-for-man we can be better than the England players."