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RugbyU: England face Welsh wall in northern supremacy battle

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

History awaits the winner of Saturday's climax to the Six Nations as Wales and Grand Slam-seeking England battle for northern hemisphere supremacy.

A tournament blighted by the weather and that has delivered precious few highlights at least got the finale it so needed and desired.

England are unbeaten after four rounds and a fifth success would see Stuart Lancaster deliver his country's first Grand Slam in a decade.

However Lancaster, in only his second year in charge, is well aware what awaits him at the Millennium Stadium, where England have never clinched the Slam.

It took World Cup winner Clive Woodward seven attempts to land the greatest prize in European rugby and England's inability to seize the moment has become part of Championship folklore, having lost four of their last five Grand Slam deciders.

"We're going to Cardiff with strong self-belief given we have four out of four in a tournament in which it is notoriously difficult to win as well as that New Zealand win last autumn," said Lancaster.

"We know it's going to be tough in Wales against a team with plenty of experience of playing in big games in the past few years and playing at home is an advantage to any side. But we're pretty confident and looking forward to the game."

In contrast Wales have little to lose and everything to gain.

The defending champions feared their reign was nearing an end when they lost the opening game of the tournament -- which remains the most entertaining tie so far -- to Ireland.

They have never won the Championship after losing their opening game. Yet three successive victories on the road, in Paris, Rome and Edinburgh, have galvanised the sleeping dragons.

And thanks largely to Italy's gutsy display at Twickenham last week, they now have a genuine opportunity to retain the title for the first time in 34 years.

Interim coach Rob Howley said: "It's great to come towards the end of a championship when one team is going for the Grand Slam and the other has got the opportunity for the championship.

"Six Nations 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.

"I have said to the players to embrace it. We've been here before, it is not new territory for us. We are looking forward to the challenge."

Wales can pinch the title from under England's nose if they were to win by seven points -- a feat they have managed four times in the last six years -- provided they safeguard their superior try-count.

A victory by eight points would secure the title outright.

Howley said: "International rugby is about winning the game and that is what we need to do.

"The players know the situation in terms of points, number of tries and all those factors.

"Who knows what the landscape of the game will be in the 68th minute or 72nd minute? It's a players' game and they are intelligent rugby players."

England have made four changes from the unconvincing display against Italy in re-calling half-backs Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell, prop Joe Marler and No8 Tom Croft for his first Test start in 12 months following a career-threatening injury.

Croft fractured a vertebrae in his back in three places but returns for England after less than five hours of rugby for club Leicester.

"My recovery has taken a little longer than I had hoped but it was always a matter of when I would be back, not if. Wales are on a up-ward trend but in our minds, we are favourites," said Croft.

Crucially England's second-row pair of Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury have both been passed fit.

Howley lost one captain in Ryan Jones to injury and passed over another in Sam Warburton after asking Gethin Jenkins to lead his country for only the fourth time in his 12-year career on his return from a calf problem.

Justin Tipuric also starts in a new-look back row.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130314/rugbyu-england-face-welsh-wall-northern-supremacy-battle