For the neutral, it was far from a spectacle of free-running rugby. For Wales, the finer details of 5 February 2005 were immaterial.
For the first time in six years, and in the wake of some abysmally one-sided contests, Wales had beaten England 11-9, a Gavin Henson penalty four minutes from time deciding the game in their favour at the Millennium Stadium. It is seen by so many as a turning point in the international fortunes of Wales, the springboard to a first Grand Slam in nearly three decades and as a platform to rebuild.
Ten years and one day since that landmark win, Wales open their Six Nations campaign against England on a Friday night at the same venue.
For Martyn Williams, that game is fresh in the memory, as one of four players to have won a century of caps in a Wales jersey. The 2005 fixture was his 50th for his country. “My career is split very evenly with memories of playing against England,” says the former flanker. “The first half I have terrible memories.”
His debut came against England in 1998, a 60-26 defeat, and the 50-10 loss in 2002 also remains firmly rooted in the memory. “For the first five or six years I didn’t get near to beating England, so the win 10 years ago was massive. Not just for the day but the way it changed the course of things for all of us in Welsh rugby.”
Bar Gethin Jenkins, the sole survivor from that 2005 win, the memories for the current squad of that day are merely as youthful spectators. But there is confidence that Wales can win – by as much as 10 points in Williams’ view.
Warren Gatland announced his team as early as Monday, in part to make a point to the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, about the certainty of his selections from a fully fit squad while Pennyhill Park has become a seeming conveyor belt of the walking wounded as injuries continue to take their toll.
As a player and now BBC pundit, Williams says selection debates have been muted.
“I think everyone agreed that Wales were so selectable,” he says. “I think it’s the first time I can remember there not really being any debate about who would be selected. There was some talk of George North missing out after missing the last game but I could never really see that.”
Wales, who dealt England a 30-3 battering when the two sides met at the same venue two years ago, are comfortable favourites but Williams is all too aware of the ramifications of defeat.
The match is a precursor to the bigger World Cup pool match between the two. “There will be no thought from the players about that World Cup game, Wales won’t even be thinking about Scotland in a week’s time,” says Williams. “That might be different for the coaching team, who’ll have one eye on the World Cup. With that in mind, obviously there are wider ramifications. If England win, it will be huge. It will have a huge bearing for them for the tournament, the rest of the year and the World Cup. It would be a massive loss for Wales to take. England are very much the underdogs.”
For the public, the only concern is victory on Friday night. “England have that aura and, for the Celtic nations, it’s like taking on big brother,” said Williams. “The build-up to the game is so much more intense and you sense that passion in the streets. There’s a song, ‘As long as we beat the English’, and that rings true.”
Williams does not believe England will be affected by the demons of two years ago, having gained a similarly one-sided win at Twickenham last year.
“If anything, with players of the character of Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown, that defeat could be used to their advantage,” he says. “Then there’s the noise of the Millennium Stadium. I’ve heard England have been playing with loudspeakers in training but nothing is ever going to replicate the noise of the Millennium Stadium on a Friday night.”
But he added: “It can be daunting if you’ve not experienced it before but it can also be to your benefit. I know, for example, a lot of the southern hemisphere guys thrive on it – they’ve told me as much.”
Williams, with both head and heart, believes Wales will win, then battle it out for the championship with France in the ensuing weeks – with one caveat: “With Wales v England, you just never know.”
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