The last time Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards took a club side to Twickenham for a major cross-border contest, their beloved Wasps staged one of the great smash-and-grab raids in modern rugby history to slip past Toulouse in the dying seconds and sneak off with the Heineken Cup. This afternoon, the same two men return to the old cabbage patch with a different club outfit disguised as a Welsh Test team: 13 Ospreys in the starting line-up, a 14th on the bench. If this is a confidence trick and England fall for it, the World Cup finalists will never forgive themselves.
England-Wales matches are seldom played out in monochrome: even when one or other of the teams were masters of all they surveyed, the downtrodden no-hopers occasionally found ways to disrupt what was assumed to be the natural order of things. As neither of this afternoon's combatants would claim to be absolutely in the pink – England have been forced into personnel changes they would rather not have made; Wales have seen precious little of Gatland and still less of Edwards – this fixture is as brightly coloured as any since the visitors last won in south-west London 20 years ago.
There are questions to be asked about the hosts – can Steve Borthwick repair a line-out comprehensively dismantled by the Springboks in the World Cup final? Is Toby Flood the man to give a shock-and-awe midfield some much-needed subtlety? Will Luke Narraway, the debutant No 8, be recognised by anyone outside his immediate family? – but the big issues surround the Welsh, whose capture of Edwards from under English noses has provoked much comment, none of it complimentary to the red-rose establishment.
Persuaded by Gatland, a friend of long standing, to link up with Wales on a part-time basis, Edwards is more – infinitely more – than a specialist defence strategist. In a sense, this most familiar string to the rugby league maestro's bow is the least of England's problems, for if the "blitz" model he helped pioneer in the Premiership is not exactly a barrel of laughs for those attempting to find a way through it (or round it, or over it), there are enough people in the home set-up from his other life – he still has a day job at Wasps – who understand its strengths and weaknesses. After all, they encounter it every week.
According to those who work most closely with him, Edwards creates a winning culture through sheer force of personality. As one member of the Welsh hierarchy said: "We've been waiting for someone to tell it like it is for years. Now Shaun is here, all the old illusions have gone. He told the players at his first meeting that if they miss a tackle, he misses it too; that if they lose a match, he loses it as well. And he ended by saying, quite chillingly, that should either of those things happen, he'd be very interested to know why."
It is not clear at this stage whether Gatland has turned Wales into Ospreylia because he genuinely feels the Neath-Swansea regional side possess the vast majority of the best players, or whether he feels continuity and familiarity will paper over at least some of the cracks until he finds the time to do some proper redecorating. If it is a case of the former, an in-form individual like Tom Shanklin, the powerful Cardiff Blues centre, will be bitterly disappointed and more than a little confused. The likelihood must be that the new coach is buying himself some breathing space.
Given the choice, England would have preferred to see another Cardiff-based player, the back-row forward Martyn Williams sitting alongside Shanklin on the bench. There was never much chance of that happening. If Edwards was the top item on Gatland's "must get" list, Williams was no lower than second. Once he agreed to abandon the retirement from international rugby he announced in the immediate aftermath of his country's World Cup defeat by Fiji, the words "automatic" and "selection" came immediately into play.
Brian Ashton could be heard singing the open-side flanker's praises yesterday – "Martyn is one of the outstanding performers in world rugby and we're very aware of the things he brings to the Welsh side," he said – but the England head coach was not remotely interested in discussing some of his opposite number's more mischievous recent comments, which have included some pointed remarks about the ability of the recalled full-back Iain Balshaw to keep his head above water and some mock-sympathetic words about Ashton being fobbed off with a supposed one-year contract. Actually, Ashton has an "indefinite" contract, which might turn out to last longer than Gatland's four-year version. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good mindgame?
Last season, a pumped-up Welsh pack operated at a tempo far beyond anything England were able to handle and swept to victory in Cardiff. But recent matches at Twickenham have been dominated by the red rose tight forwards and their ultra-disciplined driving game. There is no obvious reason to expect anything different this afternoon, for whatever Wales are bringing to south-west London, they will not have an Andrew Sheridan or a Phil Vickery, a Matt Stevens, or a Simon Shaw. If Lewis Moody does not waste valuable time playing musical chairs at the line-out and spends his afternoon cramping Williams' style and putting the fear of God into James Hook, the home forwards should establish a winning advantage.
There is nothing foregone about this conclusion, however. This is not 2002 or 2006 – years in which the Welsh shipped a total of 97 points at Twickenham. Today's set-to has a much stronger whiff of 2004 about it, and on that occasion, the visitors went within 10 points of righting the wrongs of the last two decades. A few weeks previously, they had given England an ever bigger hurry-up in a wonderful World Cup quarter-final in Brisbane, outscoring them by three tries to one before falling to Jonny Wilkinson's boot. Something similar here is not out of the question.
Welsh Grand Slam from the mists of time
One hundred years ago Wales defeated England 28-18, not at Twickenham but Bristol City football ground. The match was played in a mist so dense that it would not have been out of place had the players negotiated their way around the field with Davy lamps.
Asked by the Press beforehand which way Wales would be playing, Percy Bush, the brilliant outside-half, replied: "We will play with the fog."
He made one try by transferring the ball at speed to Rhys Gabe before running in the opposite direction pursued by the confused England backs. Gabe touched down at the posts and at half-time Bush "was discovered in the crowd chatting away like a jaybird".
In 1908 Wales would go on to complete the first "grand slam" of what had become, with the inclusion of France, a five nations tournament. The French love affair with rugby union had only just begun and in their first game against Wales they were beaten 36-4 in Cardiff.
Prior to the match, which was played on a Monday afternoon in front of a crowd of 20,000, the French team were paraded through the city in horse-drawn charabancs and were given wine at both the French Consulate and City Hall before visiting the docks where they were invited to climb the huge coal-tipping cranes.
Wales edged past Scotland 6-5 at Swansea and completed the clean sweep with an 11-5 victory over Ireland in Belfast where they survived a "torrid series of attacks by the Irish pack". It was their fifth triple crown and the first slam ever recorded.
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Six Nations fixtures
Ireland v Italy
England v Wales
Scotland v France
SATURDAY 9 FEBRUARY
Wales v Scotland
France v Ireland
SUNDAY 10 FEBRUARY
Italy v England
SATURDAY 23 FEBRUARY
Wales v Italy
Ireland v Scotland
France v England (Paris) 8.0
SATURDAY 8 MARCH
Ireland v Wales (Dublin) 1.15
Scotland v England
SUNDAY 9 MARCH
France v Italy
SATURDAY 15 MARCH
Italy v Scotland
England v Ireland (Twickenham) 3.0
Wales v France
(Cardiff) 5.0Reuse content