LONDON (AP) — An unremarkable Six Nations has thrown up what promises to be a thrilling finale as Wales and England meet on Saturday with the title, a Grand Slam and potentially selection for the British and Irish Lions squad up for grabs.
For northern hemisphere rugby, it doesn't get much bigger than this — the competition's two most successful teams, and biggest rivalry, clashing in the frenzied atmosphere of rugby-mad Cardiff. The Welsh, with momentum behind them after three straight wins, will love nothing more than to deny the English a first Grand Slam in 10 years and retain the championship against all the odds, having started the Six Nations in complete disarray.
England, meanwhile, looks to complete its transformation from World Cup embarrassments to kings of Europe in the space of 18 months under the stewardship of Stuart Lancaster. Belief grew with a stunning, record win over New Zealand in December and has swept a young, inexperienced team through the Six Nations.
"It will take an outstanding effort but we have done it before — we have been to away games and won, we have played the best side in the world at home and won," Lancaster said. "We go in with a strong self-belief. We have won four from four and the New Zealand game as well. We have to deal with the occasion and play with composure and accuracy. There is a quiet self-belief."
England has blown seven chances of Grand Slams in the past 23 years, most recently in 2011 when it lost heavily in Ireland. Defeats to Scotland in 1990 and Wales in 1999, when Scott Gibbs scored a last-minute converted try for a 32-31, have gone down in tournament folklore.
Saturday could be just as memorable. A win will seal a first Grand Slam for England since 2003 — the year it won the World Cup. Even if the English lose by six points or less, they will win the title.
However, second-place Wales can steal the title by winning by eight points or more. If Wales' winning margin is seven points, it will go to tries scored — and the Welsh currently have the edge by two (7-5).
The hosts have come from nowhere, having lost their opening match 30-22 to Ireland to take their winless streak to eight games stretching back to June. Wales has 12 starters from the Grand Slam decider against France a year ago, and a combined tally of more than 600 caps.
"The players have worked very hard to put themselves in this position for Saturday, with three hard-fought victories on the road," interim Wales coach Robert Howley said. "We have a very experienced squad, who have been in this position before, that have played in big games and that will be important come kickoff."
The champions closed out Grand Slams in 2005, '08 and '12 and played in a World Cup semifinal only two years ago. Wales is also set to provide the Lions with more players for the upcoming tour of Australia than any of the home unions, although Warren Gatland could revise some of his selections if England goes 5 from 5.
There will be Lions head-to-heads all over the Millennium Stadium, notably the battle of the flankers between Sam Warburton and Chris Robshaw. Both are in the running to be Lions captain. Warburton, however, won't be leading Wales out this weekend. Loosehead prop Gethin Jenkins has returned from injury and takes the armband from Ryan Jones, who is unavailable after breaking a bone in his shoulder in the 28-18 win over Scotland last weekend. It will be Jenkins' 98th cap.
In the absence of Jones, Warburton will flank with Justin Tipuric. The backline was unchanged. England rushed flanker Tom Croft back into its starting team as one of four changes, with prop Joe Marler and halves Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs also recalled.
Croft went on as a substitute against Italy for his first international appearance in a year after breaking his neck — an injury that almost left him paralyzed — and has been promoted to the starting lineup as a replacement for James Haskell.
His inclusion will add a strong lineout option, as well as more athleticism and mobility to challenge Wales' impressive back row. Flyhalf Farrell, fit again after a thigh strain, replaces Toby Flood, who booted all of England's points against the Italians in a flawless kicking display, in a move that should bring more authority and control to England's backline. Youngs comes in for Danny Care at scrumhalf.
"Six Nations tournaments are normally special, but to come to the end of a long campaign with everything up for grabs, it is going to be a special atmosphere on the weekend," Howley said. "I have said to the players to embrace it."
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Georgia North, Dan Biggar, Mike Phillips; Toby Faletau, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton, Ian Evans, Alun-Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Richard Hibbard, Gethin Jenkins (captain). Reserves: Ken Owens, Paul James, Scott Andrews, Andrew Coombs, Aaron Shingler, Lloyd Williams, James Hook, Scott Williams.
England: Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown, Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (captain), Tom Croft, Geoff Parling, Joe Launchbury, Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Joe Marler. Reserves: Dylan Hartley, David Wilson, Mako Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Danny Care, Toby Flood, Billy Twelvetrees.