There’s nothing quite like a England vs Wales fixture – it’s the biggest game in the northern hemisphere and arguably second biggest in the world behind New Zealand v Australia.
There’s so much history to this fixture but we’ll get to that later. First of all we have to consider the fact that next weekend’s crunch encounter at Twickenham is a Six Nations title decider.
Eddie Jones’ refurbished side have been given a new lease of life under the Aussie, putting to bed their nightmare Rugby World Cup with three straight wins in one of the game’s premier competitions.
The opening round win over Scotland may not have been particularly pretty, but the Red Rose were proficient in a tricky opener at Murrayfield, dominating against a new-look Scotland.
They trounced Italy in Rome and despite facing a patched-up Ireland last weekend, were clinical and ruthless, capitalizing at a key moment in the game to score two killer tries and beat the defending champions.
Of course their toughest two games are likely to be their next two, with the visit of the Dragons on March 12 followed by a final showdown with Les Bleus at the Stade de France.
Wales have been similarly regimental to England in their defeats of the Scots and France, if not spectacular, though Warren Gatland certainly has the players at his disposal to cut any team apart – it’s just a shame we have not seen it yet.
In Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies and scrum-half Gareth Davies, one of the stars of the World Cup, Wales have world-class talent in their back-line, but their games all too often descend into forward or power-dominated slugfests.
What better time for their cutting-edge backs to step up to the plate and take centre stage than at the home of their fiercest rivals. There’s certainly no love lost between England and Wales, who have served up some true classics in this competition down the years.
There was England’s 21-16 triumph in Cardiff in 2015, in which England’s injury-hit team came from 10 points down to record a famous victory to take revenge for their record 30-3 mauling in 2013.
That win saw Wales storm to the Six Nations title with a record win over England and crushed the visitors’ Grand Slam hopes in the process.
While the most recent meeting between the sides was at last year’s World Cup as opposed to the Six Nations, it is one that still stings the England players.
A 28-25 defeat to an injury-ravaged Wales effectively sealed their group stage exit at the World Cup, and there could be fireworks on the banks of the Duke of Northumberland’s River this weekend.
Can Ireland turn their Six Nations campaign around?
Sticking with the Six Nations, and following a second straight defeat in the competition, defending champions Ireland face the realistic prospect of going from winners to the wooden spoon.
Admittedly they have Italy at the Aviva Stadium in the next round, and also have a bonus point on the board, but the alarming rate at which they have sunk into freefall since the World Cup has been astonishing.
Of course there are mitigating factors like their horrendous injury list, as well as the fact they can no longer call on the services of behemoth Paul O’Connell, but whereas Wales flourished amidst a World Cup injury crisis, Ireland have capitulated.
Considering prior to the World Cup that they were considered the northern hemisphere’s best hope and were tipped to make at least the semi-finals alongside the powerhouses from the south, the sharpness of the descent suffered by Joe Schmidt’s men in the last six months has been catastrophic.
Of course, all talk of the wooden spoon should lift with a convincing home win against the Italians, but it still won’t deviate from the fact it’s been a horrendous start to 2016 for the men from the men in green, who will not relish welcoming Scotland to Dublin for their final tournament game.
Bright new era for Super Rugby
Japan’s Sunwolves began a bright new era in rugby for the land of the rising sun last weekend as Super Rugby returned for a new season.
Tokyo’s Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium was full to its 27,188 capacity as Asia welcomed Super Rugby for the first time, and although the home team were unable to mark the historic match with a win, the team emerged from the encounter with South Africa’s Golden Lions with a massive amount of credit.
The visitors claimed a 26-13 and in truth could have won by a lot more, but on a day when the result was always going to be a secondary concern, the Sunwolves proved that they will not be overawed in their debut campaign.
Sunwolves captain Shota Horie said he was disappointed with the result, but was hugely encouraged by his team’s performance, and promised more to come from the debutants.
“A defeat is hard to swallow but the season has just started and we hope to build from this game,” he said.
The Sunwolves are one of three new teams in Super Rugby this season, with Argentina’s Jaguares also the first club from the South American country to enter the competition.
While the Sunwolves impressed but had to settle for a brave defeat, the Jaguares made an emphatic statement on their debut in South Africa, edging a fascinating contest 34-33 with the Central Cheetahs in Bloemfontein 34-33.
Victory was all the more impressive for Jaguares who trailed by 21 points at one stage and played for 10 minutes with 13 players.
The third new side in this season’s expanded 18-team competition, the Southern Kings, crashed to a 43-8 defeat against Coastal Sharks in an all-South-African encounter in Port Elizabeth.
In the 109-year history of rugby league in Australia, only eight players are referred to as the game’s Immortals.
A status awarded to post-war players and established in 1981, Andrew Johns was the last inductee, in 2012, to join Arthur Beetson, Wally Lewis, Graeme Langlands, Reg Gasnier, Johnny Raper, Bob Fulton and Clive Churchill.
Yet, even though he is still playing, there is already a clamour for Johnathan Thurston to become number nine on that revered list, ahead of his idol Mal Meninga, Darren Lockyer, Peter Sterling, Brad Fittler, and current Australia team-mates Cameron Smith and Greg Inglis.
Having added the 2016 World Club Challenge to his hefty trophy haul following the North Queensland Cowboys’ crushing 38-4 triumph over English Super League champions Leeds last Sunday, the 32-year-old has now done, and won, it all. His record cries out, ‘I am Legend’.
Having been instrumental in his country’s World Cup win in 2013, Thurston kicked the Cowboys to their first NRL Grand Final triumph last season with a 17-16 golden-point success over the Brisbane Broncos, after hitting the post with a conversion attempt in the final seconds of normal time.
A record three-time Golden Boot winner as the world’s best player, a record four-time Dally M recipient as the NRL’s finest and nine State of Origin successes, he is deemed to be the sport’s equivalent to footballer Lionel Messi for his match-winning, magical ability.
“I know who he is,” Thurston says as he booms out his famed infectious laugh. “But I don’t think he knows who I am. “It’s a compliment, it really is. Messi is the world’s best soccer player, does brilliant things, so for people to call me that, or think like that, it’s a bit humbling.
“I like to create and score tries, kick goals, but I just try to prepare the best I can each week and not let my team-mates down. That’s most important to me. You have to set your standards high and try to achieve them.
“We have a great coaching staff who put structures in place and, obviously being in the halves, it’s my job to execute the tactics. I’m just enjoying my football and being out there trying to help the team win and achieve something special. It’s not about me.”
But Thurston is a special talent himself, quite possibly RL’s greatest-ever. That debate will never end – and he may have to bide his time for the ultimate recognition of his feats. But Darius Boyd, who has played with him for Australia and Queensland, has no doubt the classy, courageous Cowboys stand-off is among the very best.
Johnathan Thurston receives the Graham Murray medal as man of the match from Amanda Murray pic.twitter.com/L6ptih9uAx— leedsrhinos (@leedsrhinos) February 21, 2016
The Brisbane full-back was a team-mate of Lockyer in 2006 when the Broncos won the NRL Grand Final, and says it’s a “tie” between the pair as the best he has ever played with.
“Locky was a leader and made things happen, made those around him better,” says Boyd. “JT, well, he is class everywhere. He is a competitor, can kick goals, can put a ball on anyone’s chest and dominate a game like no one else can.”
It is what Johns used to do for more than a decade, but many feel Thurston will surpass him. He seems genuinely humbled by all the accolades, and still can’t quite believe just how far he has come.
Ever since taking up the sport as a six-year-old, he dreamed of a starring role, yet struggled to get a club in his teenage years and worked as a butcher’s assistant in a supermarket as he suffered countless rejections. Even when he was finally given a chance and tried to carve out a career at Canterbury Bulldogs under Ricky Stuart, he had to combine training with washing cars until he got a salary.
Those tough times, which almost made him quit, help him appreciate everything good that has since followed.
“Of course,” says Thurston, who won his first NRL Premiership with the Bulldogs before joining the Cowboys in 2005. “It was hard back then. I was always told I was too small (he’s 5ft 10ins or 179cm), or couldn’t tackle, growing up. But I suppose I’ve had the last laugh now.
“That drove me on. I’m pretty stubborn like that, so it pushed me rather than giving up. I’m enjoying my footy now and that helps massively. What people say is a compliment, I’m humbled and honoured. There have been some great, great players. I was a Canberra Raiders fan growing up so Mal Meninga was my hero. I used to think I was him in the backyard.
“I actually made my Kangaroos debut with Andrew Johns so that was special too, being lucky enough to have one game with him as he was one of the best.
“The best I’ve ever played with are Cameron Smith, GI (Greg Inglis) and Darren Lockyer. So I’ve been in a very lucky position, a privileged position. I’ve played in some very good teams, under some very good coaches, and with some very good players, for representative teams, State of Origin, and the Australian team. Those boys make me look good. And, for me, it’s all about not letting my teammates down and that’s what I try not to do.
“There’s pressure, but I enjoy that. Hopefully when I finish, the boys will have enjoyed playing alongside me and know that I gave it everything.”
But Thurston is far from finished. Having hinted at giving up Origin rugby to extend his Cowboys contract by another year, that could well be 2017 when he is 33.
But he tells Sport360 exclusively: “I don’t really set targets. I’m just enjoying my football, enjoying going to training with the boys, and will keep going for as long as I can.
“The body is feeling really good and at this stage, I’m hoping I can still be running around on the pitch in 2018 – and then we will see.
“I’m looking forward to the next couple of years. This year, next year, I just want to win more trophies. We have the World Cup again next year and that’s another target. Losing the 2008 final to New Zealand was my worst memory – I’m not used to losing. But we got it in 2013 and it would be special to get another.”
And, with the new NRL season starting next Thursday, so too another Premiership as no team have won back-to-back titles since Brisbane in 1992-93.
“Absolutely,” adds Thurston. “Without a doubt winning the Grand Final was my best moment, above a World Cup. “It’s why you play the game, to win Grand finals. It’s what you set out to do every year.
“To finally win that first Premiership for the Cowboys is a memory that will last me forever. It was such a close game and emotional at the end for me.
“I think that was all down to the build-up from the week, what it meant, the occasion, and then a pressure release at the end. I have fond memories of it and to be part of the first Cowboys team to win it, that was special. But now we want to do it all again and make more history.
“I’m always looking at doing more, 100 per cent, and looking forward to trying to get better each week. I analyse my game every week and look at areas where I can improve and do better.”
If Thurston is able to do that, heaven help the opposition – and rugby league immortality will be confirmed sooner rather than later.
Wasps boss Dai Young has no doubt that Bath will want to “set the record straight” when the Aviva Premiership rivals meet for a fourth time this season on Saturday.
The clubs claimed one European win each, while Wasps shaded a scrappy Premiership encounter last October, but current form hugely favours Young’s men.
While Wasps arrive in the west country following a startling 64-23 demolition of league leaders Saracens last weekend, Bath have won just two from their last seven Premiership starts – and both of those were against struggling Worcester.
“Sunday’s performance against Saracens was certainly one for the memory banks, but that’s where it stays,” Young said. “I am sure Bath will want to set the record straight and make it 2-2 after our win there in Europe, so we know they will throw everything at us on Saturday. We will need to be at our absolute best again.”
Bath certainly know what might be coming from Wasps, having been on the receiving end of a 36-10 Champions Cup defeat – their heaviest European home loss – against them in December.
“They play a great brand of rugby and showed what they can do last Sunday. It was very impressive,” Bath flanker Francois Louw said.
Saracens, meanwhile, have an immediate chance to resume normal service at Allianz Park when they host Gloucester, and scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth said: “We let our fans down badly at the weekend. They have been extremely supportive, and we need to give them something to shout about.”
Sale Sharks rugby director Steve Diamond takes his team to Worcester, where an away victory would keep them firmly in contention for a play-off spot, with just five points separating six clubs immediately behind current Premiership top two Saracens and Exeter before the latest round of league action.
“We have got to get a win at the weekend to keep the pressure on the teams that are around us, and more importantly, the top four,” Diamond said.
“We have got to go down there and play better than we did at the weekend to beat them. Tomorrow’s action sees two of the bottom three clubs with home advantage, as 12th-placed London Irish host Exeter and Newcastle entertain Northampton.