England were beaten – and beaten up – in virtually every department when they suffered a record defeat by Wales on their last visit to Cardiff in 2013, but they won the first round of this year’s contest 48 hours before kick-off by declaring that the Millennium Stadium roof would stay open for the start of this year’s Six Nations. It was not a decisive victory by any means, but the home side will not be at all happy at taking this early blow.
Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, had set the tone for the build-up by daring England to “meet the challenge” of playing indoors on Friday night. It was a mischievous remark, made more in hope than expectation: no one present at the game two years ago, least of all Gatland, could forget the noise and hostility generated by the capacity crowd, the effect of which was dramatically heightened by the umpteen tons of concrete covering the venue. Unfortunately for the Welsh party, Stuart Lancaster is the last person to suffer memory failure.
“We’ll make a last check on the forecast,” said the England coach, “but if the current prediction of fair weather holds, we’ll ask for the roof to be opened. If it’s going to be dry, why would you need a roof?” As tournament rules dictate that a closure can happen only if both coaches agree to it, Gatland has no choice but to dig out his winter coat.
With the possible exception of Ellis Park in Johannesburg, which can be really scary when the Springboks and their supporters are in full cry simultaneously, the Millennium Stadium has a greater effect on a game of Test rugby than any venue in the sport. Its city-centre location dictated the design – the architects had to go up rather than out, due to restricted space – and as a consequence, the noise levels would make Deep Purple sound timid.
Hence the decision to install speakers around the red-rose training base in Surrey and batter the players’ ears with deafening renditions of “Hymns and Arias”, the old Max Boyce song that has long been hollered from on high in support of the Wales team. If it was not quite the quintessential sound of the
English home counties, Lancaster and company were confident that those paying top dollar for a room in the wildly expensive country house hotel a few dozen yards down a tree-lined private road from the practice field would show some understanding.
“It was simply a means of replicating the Millennium Stadium sound for those players who haven’t been there before and don’t know quite what to expect,” Lancaster explained. “The acoustics there are such that during a big game, you can’t make yourself heard on the pitch – or even hear yourself think – and we wanted to emphasise the importance of clear communication in difficult conditions. Before the 2013 match, Mike Catt [the England assistant coach] spoke about it, and some said ‘yeah, yeah’. And afterwards, they said: ‘Mike, you were right.’”
If Lancaster was happy to acknowledge the unique demands of playing Six Nations rugby in Cardiff, he played down the significance of Friday's outcome with regards to the forthcoming World Cup, during which the two nations will meet in a vital pool match at Twickenham on 26 September.
“There’s a big gap between the games, a lot of rugby to be played over the next six months,” Lancaster said. “The World Cup will be completely different. We’ll have had time in camp before that fixture, as will Wales. Our focus has to be on the here and now.”Reuse content