LONDON // With their destructive back-row combination from the Rugby World Cup finally reunited, Wales head to Twickenham in the unusual position of favourite and with ambitions far higher than just beating England in their own back yard.
Buoyed by their run to the World Cup semi-finals late last year, the Welsh have begun the Six Nations with back-to-back wins to join France as the competition favourites and also leave them on the brink of the Triple Crown.
Getting the better of England - for so long their biggest rival and the defending champion - no longer appears to be the top target for Wales in the Six Nations.
"When we won in 1999 at Wembley, it didn't matter that we had come fourth in the championship because we had beaten England," said Adam Jones, the Wales prop. "But I don't think we look at it that way any more."
Wales have won just once at Twickenham in the past 24 years but have a great chance to improve that record now that their injury problems have relented.
Sam Warburton returns from a thigh injury to resume his role of team captain and joins a back row also comprising his fellow flanker Dan Lydiate and the No 8 Toby Faletau, a trio that was in form for the Welsh at the World Cup but has not played together since.
With the first-choice lock Alun Wyn Jones also back in the pack, England will have their hands full to contain Warren Gatland's side and also stay perfect after away victories over Scotland and Italy.
"To beat the favourites and be three from three would put us in a good situation, but the same can be said for them," said the England full-back Ben Foden. "It's a big, crunch game."
England, still winning matches despite being in a transitional stage with a young squad under the interim coach Stuart Lancaster, made four changes in personnel to the team that beat Italy 19-15 in Rome.The scrum-half Lee Dickson, the No 8 Ben Morgan and the lock Geoff Parling will all start for the first time, and Manu Tuilagi was recalled at outside centre, after injury, for his first appearance since the World Cup. The most eye-catching change was positional, however, with the 20-year-old Owen Farrell switching to fly-half from centre after Charlie Hodgson hurt his finger in training.
Farrell has been earmarked as the long-term replacement for the recently retired Jonny Wilkinson, England's World Cup-winning fly-half from 2003, and is given his first chance at Test level to play in his preferred position.
"No one is concerned in the slightest," Lancaster said. "As a management, we know he is a quality player and a grounded person. It's a great opportunity for him and I'm sure he'll be excited by it. I wouldn't want to compare any young player to Jonny Wilkinson because I think it sets them up. Owen Farrell is Owen Farrell. His core skills, his basic skills, are very good. He is one of the best young players I've ever coached in that regard."
England will start with their least experienced line-up in the Five/Six Nations for 23 years, with 182 caps compared to the 488 for Wales.
Ireland's Stephen Ferris is set for a physical challenge as they start four games in four weeks against Italy
The Irish lost their opening game at home to Wales and were denied a chance to make immediate amends when their match against France in Paris was postponed because of a frozen pitch a week later.
They still have designs on winning the Six Nations but cannot afford another loss, especially to the competition’s perennial underachiever.
“When you lose a game you like to get straight back out there and get it out of your system,” Paul O’Connell, the Ireland captain, said. “It’s been frustrating carrying that around.”
Four matches in as many weeks is not an ideal way to finish the Six Nations.
“There’s no doubt successive Test matches will be very physically demanding, but we’re used to it,” Stephen Ferris, the Ireland flanker, said. “We did it at the World Cup and we play week in, week out for the provinces.
Italy were competitive in their matches against France and England, but they came away with losses, increasing the prospect of another last-place finish.
While Ireland are unchanged, the Italy coach Jacques Brunel made four changes to the team who lost 19-15 to England.
Tobias Botes will make his first start at fly-half, Alberto Sgarbi replaces Gonzalo Canale at the No 12, Michele Rizzo comes in for Andrea Lo Cicero at the loosehead prop and Lorenzo Cittadini takes over from Martin Castrogiovanni at the other side of the front row.
After living in the shadow of Castrogiovanni for so long, Cittadini has a chance to impress in his first Test appearance in four years. “I feel ready. Actually to be honest, I have never felt so ready,” Cittadini said.