A packed Millennium Stadium on an occasion dedicated to rugby's version of class warfare, with the roof slammed shut, a 70,000-strong Welsh choir in full voice and the level of hostility keeping pace with a rising decibel count that will make Led Zeppelin sound like a string trio... one way or another, England can expect to be sorely tested when the Six Nations Championship begins in Cardiff tonight. Are they fretting about it? Apparently not. If the red-rose camp had been any more laid back yesterday, sports psychologists would have diagnosed a rare outbreak of communal horizontalism.
Martin Johnson, the England manager, described himself as "relaxed" – precisely the word chosen by Mike Tindall, the England captain, when he was asked to sum up his state of mind. Hell, there was even a joke a two. As Johnson, a beetle-browed sort who generally keeps his lacerating wit to himself, reflected on his country's last tournament success in this city, eight interminable years ago, he could not resist a small dig at the hosts. "We won by 17 points, as I recall, but it was a moral victory for Wales," he remarked, his tone awash with irony.
His fresh twist on an age-old theme – "You never beat the Welsh at rugby; you only score more points than them" goes the saying – may have been sarcastic rather than savage, but it fitted neatly into the spirit of the most fractious build-up to a Wales-England contest for almost a quarter of a century. Back in the day, words spoken before the game invariably resulted in punches being thrown during it. In 1980, Margaret Thatcher's hang-'em-high approach to industrial relations cast its shadow over a wildly violent meeting at Twickenham. In 1987, there was something equally dark about the pre-match pontifications, and once again, things kicked off straight from the kick-off. Rugby has moved on, but few will die of shock if there is an exchange of unpleasantries this time.
The sharp public criticism of the England front-rower Dylan Hartley by the Wales coach Warren Gatland may well, in years to come, be seen as an irrelevant local spat between two natives of New Zealand's north island – and two hookers, to boot. But Gatland's condemnation of Hartley's behaviour on and off the field, centred around events in two bristling Heineken Cup matches between Northampton and Cardiff Blues in December, has not been dismissed by Johnson's squad. Tindall was heard to say yesterday that "criticism of one of us is criticism of us all", while Johnson offered a barbed comment of his own. "It's been a two-week build-up and there's been a lot of media space to fill," he said. "They've filled most of it." By "they", he meant Wales.
"It will be a physical game," the manager continued. "What happened back in the '80s can't happen now, but there are certain things in international rugby that always remain the same. Players prepare for these matches in different ways – some are cool, almost cold, about it; others need to be on the edge – but ultimately, it's about harnessing emotion and channelling it into performance. That doesn't change."
This is the challenge for England tonight. Of the starting line-up, only Tindall knows what it is to win a Six Nations game in the Welsh capital; what is more, only Mark Cueto, Toby Flood, Andrew Sheridan, Tom Palmer, James Haskell and Nick Easter share the new captain's experience of having started a championship match here. Tindall is acutely aware of this potential vulnerability. "If we perform, we'll win," he said. "But we have to put a stop to Wales and the crowd before they get going. That means doing things absolutely right in the first 20 minutes."
Both sides are settled at half-back: the red-rose partnership between Flood and Ben Youngs appears to have something going for it, while the more established Stephen Jones-Mike Phillips axis was forged, at least in part, in the fires of a Lions Test series in South Africa. There is little common ground elsewhere, though. England will field their first-choice front row – an area of concern for Wales, denied the services of their best props – but have seen their line-out stripped bare by injury and will do well to neutralise the ball-winning threat posed by Bradley Davies and Alun Wyn Jones. Similarly, Wales have had to rethink their strategy in the outside-back department while England have been forced to cobble together a new loose-forward unit featuring a debutant flanker in Tom Wood.
Northampton's player of the season to date – no mean achievement, given the general standard set by the Heineken Cup quarter-finalists this term – will have plenty on his plate. Selected as a like-for-like replacement for Tom Croft, the 24-year-old Midlander will have a major role to play in two of the game's decisive theatres of action: the line-out and the tackle area. If the first goes wrong, England's he-man driving game will be emasculated. If the second blows up in red-rose faces, always a possibility when the opposition boast a scavenger as canine as Sam Warburton, the Welsh will maximise their turnover possession by running riot in broken field. No pressure there, then, Mr Wood.
Yet this pressure thing cuts both ways. Wales have not won too many games worth winning since 2008, when they notched up a second Six Nations Grand Slam in four seasons and beat the Wallabies in Cardiff for good measure. Some of their defeats have been narrow and they have sometimes been victimised by rugby's vicissitudes. But if the record books often fail to tell the whole truth, they rarely tell downright lies. Wales are on a bad run, and are desperate for it to end.
That desperation could be the making of them tonight. Just as easily, it could destroy them. If England have been the quieter team over the last fortnight – not difficult, if truth be told – it is because their self-belief is greater.
Three key confrontations in Cardiff
Morgan Stoddart v Mark Cueto
Replacing the injured Leigh Halfpenny, Stoddart – dangerous runner, high-class finisher, dodgy defender – has to handle an opponent in the form of his career. A big test for the Scarlet.
Craig Mitchell v Andrew Sheridan
Much Welsh woe when Adam Jones went down injured. However well Mitchell plays tonight, Jones will be missed – especially if Sheridan is in the mood to dominate.
Alun Wyn Jones v Tom Palmer
If the Welsh fail to prosper against a heavily revamped English line-out, their chances of victory will be remote. Jones, if he hits Lions form, can make a real difference here.Reuse content