Six Nations 2013: Wales warn England they face a 'nice warm welcome' at the Millennium Stadium
Howley promises his revived side and 'best fans in world' are ready for mammoth decider
Sunday 10 March 2013
And so, after the Six Nations recovery and the record-breaking winning run on the road, it is back to the green, green grass of home for a shot at retaining the championship title for Wales. That will be the same green grass on which the Grand Slammers of 2012 have not won against international opposition for just short of 12 months now.
True, they did beat the Barbarians in Cardiff in June but Wales last overcame a Test-playing nation at the Millennium Stadium on 17 March last year, when they rolled over France 16-9 to complete their third Slam in eight seasons. Since then, there have been five defeats in a row on home ground against international opposition: against Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia in a Welsh whitewash of an autumn and against Ireland, 33-20, in a false start of a 2013 Six Nations opener last month.
"I'm not worried about playing at the Millennium Stadium if you're trying to put that forward," said Rob Howley, Wales' caretaker head coach, when the home truth was put to him in the wake of the 28-18 win against the Scots in Saturday's penalty fest at Murrayfield. "If you look at who we played in those games – New Zealand, Australia... that's for other people to look at, not for me.
"We've got the best supporters in world rugby. I'm sure that will help. England will have a nice warm welcome at the Millennium Stadium. They're a very good side and it's great that it has come down to the last game of the championship. It's one of the biggest games our players, and probably our coaches, will be involved in. England will be coming to our stadium, our supporters, trying to clinch the title. We're just looking forward to preparing this week for a mammoth game."
For those on the east side of Offa's Dyke who see the Welsh as not quite the force they were 12 months ago, it should be pointed out that the Cymru class of 2013 go into the mammoth contest on the back of an unprecedented feat.
Since the home defeat against Ireland at the start of last month, Howley's charges have clawed their way back into contention for the title with victories against France in Paris, Italy in Rome and now Scotland in Edinburgh. Following the wins on the road against Ireland and England last season, that adds up to five successive away victories in the championship – one more than any previous Welsh side (even the hallowed heroes of the 1970s, "King" Barry John and Co) ever managed.
That says a good deal about the mettle of the men who will be standing in England's way. The steely Welsh character was clear to see on Saturday. Howley's players kept their composure better than their hosts as the contest degenerated into a symphony of whistling from the South African referee Craig Joubert, who continually pulled up the Scots for early engagement at scrum time and presided over an international record of 18 penalty-kicks at goal.
Wales enjoyed a decisive monopoly at the breakdown, where Sam Warburton (right), upon his restoration to a starting role, was back to his magnificent seven best, snaffling ball with his magnetic powers. They also scored the only try, a first for his country by Richard Hibbard, the hirsute hooker deemed to be too heavy for international duty by Scotland's interim head coach Scott Johnson when he was in charge at the Ospreys. Leigh Halfpenny could afford to miss three penalties yet still contribute 23 points with his right boot.
"We are delighted that we have been able to refocus and gain momentum after the disappointment of the first-half display against Ireland," Howley reflected. "We kept on saying to the players, 'You're a good side. Good sides don't turn into bad sides overnight.'
"They can be very proud of themselves for the character shown over the last three games – all away from home. It's something that gives us a lot of momentum going into a big game next week."
There was one piece of collateral damage on Saturday, captain Ryan Jones departing early with a shoulder injury. It could prompt Howley to start with his two world-class open-sides sharing the flanker duties against England.
"Both Justin Tipuric and Sam are quality sevens," the former Wales scrum-half said. "It's good to have options but at the moment we're hopeful of Ryan being fit.
"I thought Sam was outstanding against Scotland. I'm delighted that he's gone out and answered those people who were questioning his performance. He's world-class. He always has been, in our eyes."
According to Johnson, who spent five years coaching Wales, England will have a tough nut to crack in Cardiff. "I like this Welsh side," he said. "If it goes down to the wire, they'll be hard to beat at home. There's a toughness and resilience about them."
There is that. Since Brian O'Driscoll picked up and scored from a close-range ruck three minutes into the second half of the opener against Ireland, they have not conceded a try. That is a shut-out of three minutes short of three and a half games now.
"We have been pretty pleased with the defence," reflected Shaun Edwards, Wales' rearguard coaching specialist. "It's always critical in big games. As everyone knows, defence wins championships." Well, it's not unusual, as The Great Welsh Voice might say.
Scorers: Scotland: Penalties Laidlaw 6.
Wales: Try Hibbard; Conversion Halfpenny; Penalties Halfpenny 7.
Replacements: Scotland Kellock for Gray, 29; Wilson for Beattie, 68; Cross for Murray, 76; Jackson for Weir, 78.
Wales Tipuric for R Jones, 48; Hibbard for Owens, 60; S Williams for Roberts, 72; Bevington for Faletau, 80.
Referee C Joubert (South Africa).
Millennium misery: Wales' last five at home
2 Feb, Wales 22-30 Ireland
Ireland led 30-3 before a spirited Welsh response fell short
1 Dec, Wales 12-14 Australia
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24 Nov, Wales 10-33 New Zealand
World champions, the All Blacks cruised to their 25th successive victory over Wales
16 Nov, Wales 19-26 Samoa
Scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i inspired the islanders to a deserved win, their third in Cardiff
10 Nov, Wales 12-26 Argentina
Argentina claimed only their second victory in Cardiff
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