It is the best part of 20 years since a senior pin-stripe from the Rugby Football Union described England's relationship with the Welsh as being based on trust and understanding. "They don't trust us," he said, "and we don't understand them." Yesterday, as details of the Wales team for tomorrow's World Cup quarter-final tie with the old enemy were belatedly made public, Clive Woodward and the rest of the England hierarchy could be forgiven for failing to comprehend the scale of the gamble taken by their opposite numbers in what must have been an extraordinary selection meeting.
Steve Hansen, the former policeman from New Zealand's south island who has coached Wales since his more celebrated countryman, Graham Henry, jumped ship midway through the 2002 Six Nations' Championship, has named one of the least experienced packs in Red Dragon history - Adam Jones, Brett Cockbain and Jonathan Thomas are all single-figure internationals - and shifted the long-serving wing Gareth Thomas to the wholly unfamiliar position of full-back. He has demoted two hardened Test forwards, Gareth Llewellyn and Martyn Williams, to the bench, and backed a 5ft 7in terrier with a dancer's balance to run England off their feet.
Shane Williams, 26 going on 18, gave New Zealand all manner of grief in Sydney last weekend, inspiring Wales to a four-try performance that fairly oozed adventure and romance. His supporters, who never counted the nakedly sizeist Henry among their number, have been screaming for his reinstatement at Test level since 2001, when he played against Ireland in a delayed Six Nations game and then disappeared into the ether. If he lights the red touchpaper a second time, they will never have to scream again.
Woodward cannot have seen much of this coming, if any of it. A significant amount of his planning, meticulous to the nth degree, would have been based around the presence of Martyn Williams, the Cardiff flanker, on the open side of the Welsh scrum, and the prospect of Gareth Thomas running hard at Ben Cohen on England's left wing. He may, having watched footage of the Wales-New Zealand epic, have considered the possibility of Jonathan Thomas holding his place in the back row, but would not have bet a brass farthing of his considerable salary on the 20-year-old newcomer starting at No 8. Suddenly, the tournament favourites must think on their feet.
"I'd be lying if I said the events of last week didn't force me to reconsider one or two selections," Hansen admitted after naming his side less than three hours before the 48-hour deadline. "Is it a brave selection? I don't think I'm being overly brave in keeping Shane and Jonathan after the way they played against the All Blacks. There were some really difficult decisions in there, obviously, but we have a plan for this match and the people involved, both in the starting team and on the bench, are happy with what they're doing."
There was always a strong possibility of this game taking place at this stage of the tournament: England might have lost to the Springboks in Perth, the Welsh might easily have messed up against Italy in Canberra, but the smart money backed a cross-Severn rumble on the Queensland coast. At a distance, the phrase "no contest" seemed more than a little relevant. Wales have not beaten England since the 1999 game at Wembley - Neil Back fumble, Lawrence Dallaglio tactical error, Scott Gibbs try at the death - and as recently as 23 August, Woodward saw his second-string team put 43 points past first-choice opposition in Cardiff.
Over the last few days, however, the balance of assumptions has shifted. England should still win, and win comfortably, but a high rate of injury and an even higher penalty count have slowed their momentum. The second-row combination of Martin Johnson and Ben Kay is so far and away the best in the tournament that the red rose army can fall right off their game and still be competitive in the areas that matter most, but Richard Hill's continuing absence and a worrying set of problems at half-back leave them exposed, if only partially, to a talented attacking team willing both to dream and to dare.
Matthew Dawson, a match-winner on his day, could use a hot performance after his trials and tribulations against Samoa; Jonny Wilkinson, too tense and insular for words at the moment, also needs to increase the temperature of his performance. Even Dallaglio, as bullish as ever despite widespread criticism of his form at No 8, recognises the potential for embarrassment. "It's Sydney or London for us, isn't it?" he said this week. "We're in reality land now. If we hang off a team at this stage, if we're not sufficiently physical and aggressive in defence, we'll find ourselves in trouble."
The old stereotypes - passionate Wales against methodical England, the poor boys from the valleys against the supercilious cravats from the home counties - are hanging over this fixture like the unseasonal clouds beginning to blow in off the Pacific. Any minute now, Phil Bennett and Ray Gravell will go dewy-eyed and start muttering about the miners and Mrs Thatcher. This sort of thing cuts little ice with Hansen. "History and tradition is fine, just as long as it doesn't get in the way of progress," he remarked, coldly.
But right now, right here, the clichés have something going for them. Wales were passionate in the extreme against the All Blacks; England were charmlessly methodical against the Boks. Professional imperatives dictate that these days, method beats the pants off passion almost every time. But there are occasional exceptions, as France reminded the world in 1999. A Welsh victory is not on the cards, but there are those in Neath and Newport who believe they detect it in the stars.Reuse content