Robinson knows the victory is all that matters today

Chris Hewett, Rugby Correspondent
Click to follow
The Independent Online

He did not quite say "winning is all that matters" when he ran his eye over the runners and riders yesterday, but he might as well have done. Robinson has been stressing for months the importance of England shedding their tactical straitjacket and bringing something more to their game than a mountain of muscle and a market garden of cauliflower ears. Today, though, he will not give a damn how the game is won, just so long as it is.

"Winning gives you the inner confidence to move forward and grow," he said. "In circumstances like these, when we're about to play the first game of a tournament against the holders, victory is absolutely essential. I believe we have two or three ways of playing" - one or two ways more than is popularly believed, it must be admitted - "but the thing we have most of is power. The Welsh have been talking about playing sexy rugby. I prefer to talk about effective, winning rugby."

So there you have it, in a nutshell. England will play this game the way they played at the business end of the last World Cup in Australia, through a pack of forwards bigger and meaner than anything the opposition can muster. Steve Borthwick, the line-out specialist from Bath, went out of his way yesterday to talk up the visiting eight - "When people go on about how good a team's back division might be, it tends to make the forwards more determined than ever to prove themselves," he said - but do not be fooled. As there is very little appetite amongst Robinson's men for a free-running frolic in the wide open spaces, they will concentrate their efforts on dominating the darkened recesses.

Both captains have spent the week under a heavy covering of cumulonimbus: Martin Corry, of England, with a rib injury and Gareth Thomas, of Wales, with a range of issues, both orthopaedic and viral. Thomas has a degenerative problem with his knee that will soon require surgery; he was smacked on the jaw while playing a French Championship match for Toulouse against Pau last weekend, and he has been suffering from a flu-like condition. He has been on a different training regime - that is to say, virtually no training at all - from his colleagues, and rumour was rife in Wales that he might not start the game, let alone see the end of it.

Corry, meanwhile, came through the final team run without further damage to his ribcage and will definitely take the field.

"Ribs are ribs," said Robinson, unsympathetically. "Broken ribs, bruised ribs, it's all the same. It's a case of getting on with the game, and Martin is precisely the right man in this respect. He's not the sort to worry about these things." Happily from England's point of view, there is no need to worry. The return of Lawrence Dallaglio to international rugby after a spell of self-imposed exile may or may not undermine Corry's authority in the squad, but his presence on the bench gives the world champions a far greater air of certainty than that brought to the mix by the the European champions.

Dallaglio has put Wales to the sword more than once over the last decade, and when the other proven match-winners among the replacements - Julian White and Matt Dawson of old, Andy Goode of more recent vintage - are taken into account, it is safe to predict that England will land the harder punches from the sidelines.

Robinson believes, perhaps for the first time since succeeding Sir Clive Woodward in the early autumn of 2004, that his players have emerged from the shadow cast by the World Cup-winning side. He feels the damage to the red rose fabric caused by the rush of big-name departures has been mended, that the gaps have been plugged and the holes filled. This, he says, is a new England. "Not my England, but an England created by the players themselves."

A convincing victory today would reinforce his belief that a side capable of defending the World Cup is beginning to take shape, not least because the two following Six Nations matches, against Italy in Rome and Scotland in Edinburgh, are eminently winnable and should leave England perfectly placed to challenge for a northern hemisphere title they last won under Martin Johnson three years ago. Defeat, however, would leave them in pieces. It is 18 years since Wales last ransacked Twickenham, to the wild delight of a people still able to watch important rugby in Pontypool and Maesteg, and it would be a serious blow to English morale if their opponents suddenly put that record to rights a mere 18 months shy of the next global tournament.

England should win. They have the forward strength, they have one of the form outside-halves in world rugby - it is time the crowd at Twickenham stopped craving the return of Jonny Wilkinson and paid Charlie Hodgson some proper respect - and they have a back three full of pace and finishing prowess. If they get their strategy right, a two-score victory is not beyond them. If they get it wrong, Wales will run in a couple of killer tries and laugh themselves silly all the way down the M4, just as they did in 1988. For Robinson, it does not bear thinking about.

Key areas Where the Anglo-Welsh battle will be won and lost


The last time Wales played at Twickenham, they found themselves on the painful end of some powerful English set-piece work - particularly in the final quarter, when the home side summoned the ogreish Julian White from the bench, as they will be able to do this year. As the Welsh front row circa 2004 was better than today's combination, and given the emergence of Andrew Sheridan as a new red-rose man-eater, things look bleak for the visitors. There again, the decidedly anti-scrummaging Kiwi referee, Paul Honiss, is in charge, so anything might happen. If he permits a proper contest, it will go England's way.


Charlie Hodgson, deep in hostage to fortune territory after his withering comments about the Twickenham crowd earlier this week, has suffered his fair share of purgatorial moments at this venue - not least against France in last year's championship. He is, however, in the form of his life: cool, collected, confident. Stephen Jones probably matches him as a marksman over the short and medium ranges, but Wales no longer have their howitzer option, thanks to Gavin Henson's suspension. Henson won the game from distance last time out. His mates may miss him today.

The centres

In an ideal world, Wales would have fielded Henson and Tom Shanklin in their midfield - a combination sufficiently physical to make England think twice in this area. As it is, they have Matthew Watkins, a brilliant broken-field runner but no great shakes in the muscle department, and Hal Luscombe, a tall South African wing who borders on the anonymous. If Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon fail to prosper against these two, the tide of criticism currently washing over them will become a flood. This is a highly significant match for both Englishmen, both of whom are under great pressure.

Passing game

The English line-up is not exactly top-heavy with visionary footballers capable of throwing the odd million-dollar pass. Wales, on the other hand, have natural ball-players in every area of their team, including the front row, where the shaggy-haired loose-head prop Duncan Jones has been known to indulge himself a little on the distribution front. If the Welsh win themselves a decent amount of possession, the likes of Martyn Williams and Michael Owen in the back row - not to mention their Lions pairing at half-back - will leave the home defence resembling a Swiss cheese stripped of its protective rind. In short, they are dangerous.