When England head across the Severn Bridge for Friday's Six Nations set-to with Wales, shelling out the £19.60 toll charge will be very the least of their problems. Far more pressing will be the experience deficit: half the team have never tasted Test rugby at the Millennium Stadium – some have yet to play a match of any description at the most intimidating venue in European rugby – and the new-look back division have fewer international caps between them than the Newport-born Lions centre Jamie Roberts has in the bottom drawer of his bedside cabinet.
In naming a heavily revamped team showing six changes from the side that beat the Wallabies in the last game of Twickenham’s autumn series, the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, agreed that in terms of hardened Test know-how, the red-rose army are some way off the Red Dragon pace. “We have an experienced front row,” remarked the Cumbrian, clutching at the nearest straw. “There will be a disparity in terms of caps, especially across the back line, but then, it’s been that way ever since I started in this job.”
As there was little more to say on this particular subject, he sought his positives elsewhere. First among them was the unusual depth of leadership ability in a squad so badly disrupted by injury to senior players, from Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood up front to Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt behind the scrum. Lancaster’s choice as national captain for the last three years, the Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw, has more fully qualified decision-makers around him now than at any point since he nailed down his place in the side.
The loose-head prop Joe Marler, the hooker Dylan Hartley, the back-rower James Haskell and the scrum-half Ben Youngs are the current captains of Quins, Northampton, Wasps and Leicester respectively, while Billy Twelvetrees, who will provide centre cover from the bench, calls the shots at Gloucester. “I think it’s an important element in the make-up of this team,” Lancaster said. “If we take Robshaw as an example, he looks fresher as a result of the decision to give Marler the club captaincy at The Stoop. It’s taken some of the load from his shoulders.”
Lancaster was also bullish about his side’s prospects at the set piece, partly because Marler has been in such prime form of late and partly because Dan Cole, the senior tight-head prop in England irrespective of what David Wilson of Bath may think and say on the matter, will be back between the shafts at Test level for the first time in 11 months.
Given the scrum catastrophe suffered by the same props when England slumped to a record defeat on Grand Slam day in Cardiff two years ago, it will be quite a turnaround if they find a way of dominating the Lions Test front-rowers Gethin Jenkins and Richard Hibbard on this occasion – not to mention Samson Lee, the abrasive new tight-head specialist from Llanelli. As Cole put it, his eyes narrowing at the memory: “That 2013 game was not exactly a high point in my England career.”
Yet Lancaster was persuasive in his view that this time, with the knowledgeable French referee Jérôme Garcès in control of the close-quarter conflict rather than the unpredictable Steve Walsh of Australia, the visitors may just find themselves operating from a stable platform. “We had a great autumn at scrum time,” the coach said. “We forced a dozen set-piece penalties across the four matches, we kicked important points off the back of them... we were awarded a penalty try against the All Blacks. And we have confidence in Jérôme, who ran our game against Australia and refereed it well.”
Back in 2013, England were the ones conceding points from scrum decisions – a fact that Lancaster, who rarely forgets anything, has kept at the forefront of his mind in the build-up to this one. “If you don’t get your discipline right,” he asserted, “you pay for it. We found that out the last time we were in Cardiff, and even though we beat Wales at Twickenham last season, it was still a factor there. All 18 of their points that day came from Leigh Halfpenny, probably the world’s best goal-kicker. It’s not something we can ignore.”
There have been plenty of remarks west of the Severn about England’s vast playing strength, with the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, trotting out some big red-rose numbers in wondering whether his rival strategist really knew the shape of his optimum line-up. Ironically enough, the heavy injury fallout clarified matters for Lancaster, who had little difficulty in arriving at this fresh combination, in which the young Saracens lock George Kruis will make his first international start.
“We were reasonably clear about things,” Lancaster said, recalling his selection debates with the assistant coaches Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt. “What occupied us most of all was the replacement scrum-half choice and the make-up of the cover in the back row.”
In the event, Richard Wigglesworth of Saracens was chosen ahead of Danny Care of Quins as Youngs’ understudy at No 9 – another solid blow to the solar plexus for Care, who has spent a good deal of time as Lancaster’s first choice in the position – while both Nick Easter and Tom Croft, veterans of the last World Cup campaign in 2011, were recalled as support for the back five of the pack.
Intriguingly, there was precious little discussion of another blast from the past: the Sale outside-half Danny Cipriani, back on Six Nations duty for the first time in seven years as cover for George Ford. The Wayward One was nowhere to be seen at the team hotel, having been declared off-limits to the media, but he will not escape attention for long. Cipriani is not one of life’s natural hermits, and if he comes off the bench to manufacture the winning try for his country, he will be front-page news once again.Reuse content