There was just the hint of a feeling among the Welsh that for all their new-found tact and diplomacy under Stuart Lancaster, for all the strength of the red-rose charm offensive, conducted with great discipline over the last year or so, England have become just a little too big for their custom-made boots.
“Perhaps,” said Robin McBryde, the most cautious of men in the general run of things, “they are getting just a little ahead of themselves.”
It was far from the most outspoken red-dragon assault on English rugby – for a start, there was no mention of coalmines or holiday homes – and the Wales forwards coach was quick to add that he could see that the Grand Slam contenders “had the makings of a good side, the right ingredients” and were “gathering momentum” in their stated aim of peaking at the home World Cup in two and a half years’ time.
But McBryde’s stinging one-liner, delivered in response to a question about England’s twin-track plan to create a winning team for now while building an even stronger one for 2015, certainly made its mark, as did his declaration that a Welsh victory this evening would be celebrated every bit as wildly as the one at Wembley in 1999, the last year of the old Five Nations tournament. On that occasion, a last-ditch conversion by the current Wales kicking coach, Neil Jenkins, denied England a Slam and handed the title to Scotland. Never had the Celts of the British mainland felt a greater sense of brotherhood.
“Our build-up to this game has been a slow-burner because of the way we started against Ireland,” said the former hooker, a man frequently lauded as “the strongest man in Wales” during his playing days. “And to be honest, the weather in recent weeks has not given running rugby much of a chance – and won’t have done much for sales of DVDs after the tournament, either. But we’ve always known we would be ending the championship with a big game and while the atmosphere has been a long time in the building, things will erupt in Cardiff if we win.”
The Welsh coaches believe England will try to hit them hard off the bench in the last half-hour. “They’ve had a six-day turnaround from the Italy game last weekend so they’ll be keen to use their replacements and hope they make a difference,” McBryde said. “But we’ve been good off the bench ourselves. The people we’ve sent on have made an impact for us.”
McBryde and company also believe that the start of the game will be even more of a tone-setter than usual. “I think a solid start will be key for both teams, because on an occasion like this it’s about managing the environment. We expect them to attack us at the line-out – Geoff Parling [the England lock] prides himself on doing a good job in that area – and I imagine we’ll see the driving maul at some point.
“For us, we want a good pushing contest at the scrum and a game that doesn’t come down to a high penalty count or have a low ball-in-play count. We think it needs to be a spectacle.”
For all the footballing gifts of Dan Biggar at outside-half and the power- running of George North and Alex Cuthbert on the wings, Wales may not be able to deliver the whole of that wish-list. But they feel they have the winning of the game, having dragged themselves out of the grave they dug for themselves in that desperate first 40 minutes against Ireland.
“There was a realisation at half-time in that game that we really weren’t that bad,” the coach recalled. “It think it galvanised the whole squad. When you’ve been backed into a corner, there’s only one thing you can do… and that’s to come out fighting.”