England face wrath of Red Dragon

Welsh superiority evokes bygone era as they relish opportunity to express themselves and teach red-rose team a rugby lesson
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Not even the so-called "world player of the year" can play on one leg – however fast that leg might move – so the stricken Shane Williams must wait for another opportunity to trip the light fantastic before tier upon tier of adoring supporters at the Millennium Stadium. That is the good news for England. And the bad news? There are 14 other first-choice Welshmen for the visitors to worry about this evening, all of them fit and full to overflowing with self-belief. It must be a quarter of a century at least since the red-rose army crossed the Severn with the odds piled so high against them.

The very fact that Martin Johnson has refused to countenance a closing of the stadium roof – both sides must agree to the game being played indoors, and the visiting manager will not hear of it – tells a tale. For the last two decades or more, England teams would have been happy to play Wales in their own front room with the curtains drawn, such has been the presumption of white-shirted superiority. Now, they are insisting on a midwinter match going ahead under the Cardiff night sky, at the mercy of the elements. Like King Lear of old, Johnson is calling on "cataracts and hurricanoes" to do their worst.

Rough weather would certainly cramp the Welsh style, but it would not render the reigning Six Nations champions helpless. They put that kind of fragility behind them a year ago, thanks in no small measure to the brutal conditioning regime introduced by Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and the rest of their state-of-the-art support staff. If England think for a second that a bit of mud might worry Jamie Roberts and Tom Shanklin, the two Cardiff Blues centres, they are even dafter than the Springboks made them look before Christmas.

Whatever the conditions, England will have to play some rugby if they are to prevent a third successive championship defeat at Welsh hands. That does not mean chucking the ball towards the wings at every opportunity: as the former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones has mentioned in these pages more than once this season, that sort of tactic never won any game of union involving players older than 12. It means being smarter, more skilful and more dynamic in contact than they were in the match against Italy a week ago; it means kicking the ball with unerring accuracy (anything a metre off will open up the field for the ultra-dangerous Lee Byrne); and it means being both inventive and precise in midfield.

It might also help if they keep a full complement of players on the pitch for the duration. England's disciplinary record over the last 12 months has been interesting, to say the least – to judge by the number of yellow cards they receive these days, they will soon be sponsored by ASBO – and it is beginning to get on the management's nerves. Even Johnson, a dedicated anti-pacifist if ever there was one, is showing signs of exasperation. If the visitors go a man down at any stage of this evening's proceedings, he will be tempted to make a public example of the miscreant.

Ryan Jones, fit to lead Wales after missing last Sunday's victory in Scotland with a calf injury, has been predicting a "heavy battle up front", and it will be a surprise if events fail to bear him out. England have no option but to attack the Welsh line-out for all they are worth, because this is the one area where they hold an obvious advantage. Steve Borthwick is the best in the business in this department, while Nick Kennedy, new to Test rugby but finding his feet impressively, is every bit as athletic as the in-form Ospreys lock Alun-Wyn Jones, against whom he will jump this evening. Whether Kennedy is as hard-edged as his opponent is another question entirely. We will discover a good deal about him in this game.

England ransacked the Italian line-out to considerable effect, winning six balls against the throw and reducing the Azzurri to a 46 per cent return. They will probably need a similar success rate against Wales just to stay competitive. Gatland, the home side's head coach, understands this better than anyone, hence his mischievous boast on Thursday that he had cracked the red-rose code by listening to calls picked up from the communications equipment worn by referees.

Johnson, who knows what it is to lose the odd important line-out – remember the final Lions Test in Australia in 2001? – did not appear concerned in the slightest yesterday. "You can pick certain things up here and there, but in the modern game, most calls are made before players arrive at the line-out – especially in a place as noisy as the Millennium Stadium. And anyway, all sides have checks and double-checks. It's a game of chess."

By way of extending the analogy, Wales appear to have most of the major attacking pieces while England are lumbered with the pawns. How many of the visiting team would find a way into the Welsh starting XV in this, a Lions year? As things stand, very few indeed. Certainly none of the backs, despite the withdrawal of the exceptional Williams and the promotion of the Scarlets wing Mark Jones. Up front, it is possible to make arguments for Lee Mears, Phil Vickery and one of Borthwick or Kennedy, but the list ends there.

Yet all is not lost for England, despite what the bookmakers would have people think. Two years ago, under Brian Ashton, they travelled to Cardiff with a makeshift side – no Vickery or Andrew Sheridan, a debutant flanker in James Haskell, an inexperienced outside-half in Toby Flood, a wing relocated to full-back in Mark Cueto – and fought back from a desperate start to make a proper game of it. Last year, Ashton's side played Wales off the park for 40 minutes before disappearing in a miasma of serious injury and poor decision-making.

"The margins are so fine," Vickery said yesterday. "Recent results speak for themselves: theirs have been better than ours, and there's no getting away from that fact. But on any given day... Look, I remember coming down here in 2003, the year in which we won the Grand Slam and the World Cup, and not touching the ball, or even seeing it, for the first 20 minutes. It's the kind of thing you get when you're playing in an environment as passionate as this one. But we made one or two last-ditch tackles, found a way of exerting some control and won comfortably enough in the end. It can happen."

Precious few Englishmen expect it to happen today, but among the tiny minority are the 15 players in the starting line-up, plus sundry replacements and back-room strategists. And Johnson, of course. The manager played against Wales for a full decade and lost only once – at Wembley, in the last of the old Five Nations Championships. If ever there was a time and a place for an old has-been to give a younger generation of sportsmen the benefit of his memory, it is now and here.

*The former England captain Martin Corry has been suspended for six weeks by a Heineken Cup disciplinary committee. The Leicester forward, who retired from the international game after the 2007 World Cup, was cited following his team's Heineken Cup defeat at the Ospreys on January 24 for "an alleged strike and an act contrary to good sportsmanship". At yesterday's hearing in Dublin, Corry was found guilty of making contact with the eye/eye area of Ospreys hooker Richard Hibbard, but it was deemed to have been unintentional.

Wales v England: Millennium teams

Wales

15 L Byrne (Ospreys)

14 L Halfpenny (Cardiff B)

13 T Shanklin (Cardiff B)

12 J Roberts (Cardiff Blues)

11 M Jones (Scarlets)

10 S Jones (Scarlets)

9 M Phillips (Ospreys)

1 G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues)

2 M Rees (Scarlets)

3 A Jones (Ospreys)

4 I Gough (Ospreys)

5 A W Jones (Ospreys)

6 R Jones (Ospreys, capt)

7 M Williams (Cardiff B)

8 A Powell (Cardiff Blues)

Replacements: 16 H Bennett (Ospreys); 17 JJ Yapp (Cardiff Blues); 18 L Charteris (Dragons); 19 D Jones (Scarlets); 20 D Peel (Sale); 21 J Hook (Ospreys); 22 A Bishop (Ospreys).

England

15 D Armitage (L Irish)

14 P Sackey (Wasps)

13 M Tindall (Gloucester)

12 R Flutey (Wasps)

11 M Cueto (Sale)

10 A Goode (Brive)

9 H Ellis (Leicester)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 L Mears (Bath)

3 P Vickery (Gloucester)

4 S Borthwick (Saracens, c)

5 N Kennedy (L Irish)

6 J Haskell (Wasps)

7 J Worsley (Wasps)

8 N Easter (Harlequins)

Replacements: 16 D Hartley (Northampton); 17 J White (L'ster); 18 T Croft (L'ster); 19 L Narraway (Gl'ster); 20 P Hodgson (L Irish); 21 T Flood (L'ster); 22 M Tait (Sale).

Referee J Kaplan (South Africa)

Venue Millennium Stadium; Kick-off 5.30pm, TV BBC 1

Call to Arms Welsh rugby's defining eras

When England could not beat Wales in Cardiff

J P R Williams (Wales)

The full-back played against England 10 times – and never lost. He won seven games against England in Cardiff.

"I'd become good friends with some of the guys like David Duckham and John Pullin on the Lions tour and they would come up to us before the Wales v England game and say, 'John, take it easy on us today, don't beat us by too many points.' But we had a lot of pressure from the Welsh crowd because they wanted more and more points. Sometimes, even when we won by 20, it wasn't enough for them. That's hard."

When Wales could not beat England in Cardiff

Martin Johnson (England)

The lock and current England manager played against Wales nine times – and lost just once. He never lost against Wales in Cardiff.

"In 2001 it was the first Wales v England game at the Millennium Stadium and we were all looking forward to it," he writes in his autobiography. "There was talk of a potential upset victory for the home team and of the demoralising effect the Welsh singing might have on us. Clive Woodward [the England coach] laughed this off saying, 'If they rely on the new stadium and the songs they've already lost.' Clive was spot on."

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