“Pool of Death” rivals England and Wales are set to meet in the biggest clash of the Rugby World Cup so far on Saturday while South Africa skipper Jean de Villiers battles for his Test future.
The England-Wales encounter at Twickenham will renew one of rugby’s oldest rivalries in rugby. England have won 58 and Wales 56 of their 126 matches since 1881.
But Saturday’s match will be a modern-era deadlock breaker as the two have won five matches each since Warren Gatland took over as Wales coach in 2008 and revived the national side.
The stakes are higher as this is the World Cup and whoever loses will have a mountain to climb to get one of two quarter-final places from Pool A. Both teams still have to face world number two ranked Australia.
“For us as a nation, this is the biggest game we’ve had for a long time against England,” said Gatland, who has had to surmount a host of injury worries.
The New Zealander lost star fullback Leigh Halfpenny and scrum-half Rhys Webb to injury before the tournament.
Gatland called up wing Hallam Amos for just his fifth cap only two days after his 21st birthday.
England coach Stuart Lancaster has hit selection controversy. He has brought rugby league convert Sam Burgess into the team with precious little international experience and recalled Owen Farrell in place of George Ford at fly-half.
Lancaster’s reputation is on the line.
“It was always going to be the case for this game and the one against Australia,” he said. “Clearly the selection has heightened it.
“If we win the game it will be judged a success. If we lose the game, regardless of what selection I made, I’d be questioned.
“It will come down ultimately to the next two games. I understand the consequences and the stakes because it’s the World Cup.”
The writing is also on the wall for South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer and de Villiers if the Springboks do not restore national pride against Samoa in the Pool B match in Birmingham.
De Villiers had expected to be dropped after Japan inflicted the biggest shock in World Cup history with a 34-32 win over South Africa last Saturday.
But Meyer has kept faith with the 34-year-old centre and brought back other experienced big guns in a bid for the strong victory that the two-time world champions need to restore confidence.
“After the backing that the coach has given me, I have to perform and show that I deserve that opportunity,” said de Villiers. “I’m very aware of the criticism he has undergone for selecting me.”
Meyer has called up three players nominated for the World Rugby player of the year award over the last two years — lock Eben Etzebeth, No 8 Duane Vermeulen and full-back Willie Le Roux.
Stephen Betham, coach of the Samoa side who beat the United States, is braced for a full-blooded encounter.
“We are expecting a fired up South African side: a side that is out to prove a point, a side that is hungry for a win,” said Betham, who has predicted “massive warfare.”
Italy play Canada in the day’s third game at the Elland Road home of Leeds United football club, with both countries looking for a first win in Pool D.
Canada will be hoping veteran Jamie Cudmore does not get another sin-bin after they conceded 19 points in the 10 minutes he was out during a 50-7 defeat by Ireland.
Italy lost 32-10 to France last week and are badly missing inspirational captain Sergio Parisse who is still not ready to return from injury.