Hate. It’s been a word bandied about this week. I don’t hate England.
I’ve got a lot of English friends and I get on well with the England boys that I’ve toured with in the past with the British & Irish Lions but there is an element of hate that comes into any form of international rugby.
To try to explain what I mean, I’d go back to the words of our defensive coach Shaun Edwards. I remember him saying at the start of my international career that you have to play most international games with an element of hate.
That’s the emotion you play with, the impact you put in, certainly defensively. It’s a type of controlled aggression, controlled hate. You need that defensively to knock the opposition backwards.
But that doesn’t mean I hate England. But rugby between our two sides is one of the most anticipated games on the rugby calendar, with a history that dates back way before any of us were born.
I grew up on England against Wales. I remember that moment as a kid when Scott Gibbs burst through for that match-winning try in 1999 to beat the English. The memory’s still so vivid for me. I was 13 years old and I was just beginning to play rugby at a half-decent level. It’s those sorts of moments that shape this special rivalry.
The win that day was at Wembley so the comparison to this weekend at Twickenham isn’t exactly apt but, as a Welshman, as a Welsh rugby player, the ultimate prestige of rugby is going to Twickenham and winning. It’s the dream you want to achieve when you set out on your international career and I’ve been privileged enough to be in that position before.
A lot has been made of the fact that none of the top four in the standings have lost at home in this year’s Six Nations so far. But our team has a history of winning away. Sure, we didn’t come close to managing that against Ireland the other week but playing away from home holds no fear for us.
Personally, I love it: the noise of the opposition crowd that greets you as you enter the stadium, that element of it being akin to a gladiatorial contest with your back to the wall. Twickenham is the ultimate for that and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be this weekend that out on that pitch in West London.
The thing I’d say about playing England is that you know it the next day with every movement of your body. That day after is not a day for bending down low or getting out of the car. England are a side that demand the very best of you physically as a player.
This week, England hooker Dylan Hartley has said that I’m one of his side’s targets in this match but I feel like that’s always been the case in my career. That’s fine by me – if I’m double marked, that just opens up space in our backs elsewhere and we’ve got attacking threats from No 9 to 15. If I’m a target then we can use our guys cleverly as ball carriers or decoy runners.
My sole goal is winning my duel on the field. That’s all you can do as an individual player. If you win those duels across the park, you generally come away with the win.
As a No 12, I can appreciate the rugby that Luther Burrell plays. Those physical lines that he runs are familiar to me, and he’s taken to elite rugby very well. He’s a player I’ll respect but you want to make an impact immediately against your opponent whether that’s getting a nice shot in early or cutting a sharp line run between the centres.
What I like about England, Burrell included, is that they’re a young team and, with that, a dangerous team. They seem to lap up the pressure and play an attractive brand of rugby.
If you look at experience, it’s an area where we have an edge – just tot up the number of caps of both sides, ours are more than double the tally of England’s. While that reads nicely on paper from a Welsh perspective, it’s utterly meaningless if you don’t play to your strengths and make the experience count.
On the subject of experience, Jonathan Davies is back alongside me in midfield. Because of our respective injuries, the last time we actually played together was in that championship decider against England a year ago. Hopefully that’s a good omen for Jon’s return and for the weekend as a whole.
I believe we’re the most experienced centre partnership ever for Wales but we’re also good mates and we know each other’s game inside out. In short, we know what makes each other tick on the rugby field, so it’s great to have him back and to rekindle that partnership.
I really get the feeling Jon’s itching to get back. It’s been a slow process but he and the Wales medical team have been sensible in taking their time on that and I believe we’ll reap the rewards of his return. He’s certainly been hitting me hard enough on the pads this week to suggest he’s more than ready!
People talk about this weekend as a possible championship decider but such is the calibre of this year’s Six Nations that it’s felt like that regularly each round.
A year ago, it was just that and the scrum proved to be the key area. As a result we’ve worked hard on that this week and the front row in particular. Another area is discipline, something Shaun Edwards has been stressing again this week.
Against Ireland, our penalties were a case of rugby suicide in either half. Jonny Sexton can kick the ball 60 metres out of hand or else land a penalty from virtually anywhere in our half, and so it proved. Owen Farrell’s just the same so we know one moment of indiscipline and we’re three points down.
I like the tempo that Farrell plays the game. He’s taken to international rugby like a duck to water and, from my experience with him on the Lions tour, I know how much of a proud Englishman he is and how much he’ll be hurting from that game a year ago.
Going back to our past indiscipline, that was something we corrected for the France game, which as an 80 minutes of international rugby goes was just great for us. I wouldn’t say it was perfect as there were still a few mistakes in there. Controlling your emotions in international rugby is a key thing and we did that just right against France. We didn’t concede a try and against France that’s very impressive.
No disrespect to France but England at home is even a notch up. On that note, I’ve heard talk about who are favourites. With the experience in our squad even away from home we’d back ourselves with that tag. But then there’s a vibrancy to this English side, I like their coaching set-up and they’re basically just good rugby people.
So do you go for England with the home advantage, or us with our experience? We’d certainly back ourselves to win – but it’ll be close.Reuse content