England have been preparing for the Six Nations showdown against Wales on Saturday with a training drill designed to combat the tactic of stripping the ball in contact, with Eddie Jones highlighting Scott Williams as a key threat.
Wales have troubled England with the tactic in the past and during the match in Cardiff last year, settled by Elliot Daly’s late try, Jones’s side were stripped in contact several times with Dylan Hartley and Jamie George guilty of coughing up the ball. The England defence coach, Paul Gustard, acknowledged it was an area of the contest where they had struggled, saying: “It is a focus for us moving forward.”
Twelve months on Wales are seeking a first Six Nations win at Twickenham since 2012, when it was Williams who scored the decisive try with four minutes remaining, stripping the ball from Courtney Lawes near halfway before kicking ahead and gathering to steal victory. It was the only defeat of Stuart Lancaster’s first Six Nations campaign as the England coach. It was also the year Wales last won the Grand Slam but after emphatically beating Scotland last weekend they head to Twickenham in buoyant mood.
As such, Jones oversaw the training exercise at Bagshot during which his players broke off into pairs and grappled for control of the ball – and he urged them to “imagine it’s Scott Williams – every time he sees the ball he tries to rip it out”.
Williams starts at outside-centre for Wales after Warren Gatland on Tuesday named an unchanged XV from the side who defeated Scotland. Gatland also predicted Jones would select Jonathan Joseph as Williams’s opposite number, rather than Ben Te’o, who made his first appearance for nearly for four months against Italy on Sunday.
Jones names his team on Thursday morning but on Wednesday night he trimmed his squad to 25 players with the injured Ben Youngs the only absentee from the match-day squad against Italy. Zach Mercer has recovered from a viral infection and remains with the squad, as does the Sale winger Denny Solomona, but Jones will cut two more players from the match-day 23.
Nathan Hughes is among the players released back to their clubs but the outlook for the Wasps No 8 is positive. Having been called in this week for an assessment on his knee injury, Hughes took part in Wednesday’s training session and is on course to be available ahead of schedule. He looks set to come into contention to face Scotland on 24 February, as will Joe Marler and James Haskell – both are suspended and have been sent back to their clubs.
Nathan Earle and Nick Isiekwe did not train on Wednesday, having already gone back to Saracens, while Harry Mallinder and Luke Cowan-Dickie have returned to Northampton and Exeter respectively.