Men against boys? Ancient mariners against embryos would seem nearer the mark. Wales, shot to pieces and full of holes following their passionless capitulation in Rome last weekend, face the mother of all pummellings from the old enemy in white at the Millennium Stadium – that great concrete albatross draped around the neck of a proud rugby nation – and by the time the pain has been deadened with umpteen pints of heavy, yet another political bun-fight will be up and running along the road in Port Talbot. For the long-suffering Welsh, this is the weekend from hell.
Which is where Jonathan Humphreys enters the equation. Nobody puts a positive spin on purgatory quite like the grizzled hooker from Kenfig Hill, and he was suitably bullish yesterday as he jogged onto the Arms Park club ground, where he played hundreds of matches for Cardiff before joining Bath, for a final team run with the colleagues to whom he had been reintroduced 48 hours previously following his unexpected reinstatement as captain. "We have to front up, and we will front up," he promised. "If we show pride and courage against England, we won't go far wrong." While it is safe to say that few of his countrymen – maybe none of his countrymen – were willing to buy the argument in its entirety, they would have neither wanted nor expected him to say anything different. The 33-year-old forward was whistled up from left field after a three-and-a-half year absence from international duty for one reason, and one reason only: to bring some old-fashioned hwyl to the Red Dragon mix. The Welsh game is so down on its uppers that the paying public would be satisfied with a brave defensive performance and a decent all-in scrap. Humphreys understands that better than most.
"The pessimism in Wales is huge, and that is a warning sign for us," said Clive Woodward, the England coach. "They got it wrong against Italy, clearly, but we've got games wrong in the Six Nations too – I was pretty cranky about some of the mistakes we made against France a week ago, even though we won. In the end, your last match is nothing more than a bit of history. The thing is to move on, and Wales will move on with the passion we expect from them." Woodward also stated that the ramifications of England losing against so unfamiliar and inexperienced a Welsh side would be "huge", a comment that betrayed his real feelings and expectations about the fixture. In theory, Wales cannot hope to hurt the visitors in any positional area, with the single exception of the front row. England have three of the most threatening wide runners in world rugby, a high-class midfield, a seasoned scrum-half in Kyran Bracken and perhaps the most potent back five of any pack since the All Black quintet of the late 1980s. By comparison, the Red Dragonhood are as green as the grass that occasionally makes an appearance on the Millennium Stadium pitch.
Come scrum-time, though, the Welsh will be confident of striking a blow for every down-trodden Celt on the British mainland. With Robbie Morris making his debut on the English tight head, the overwhelming favourites are fielding two-thirds of a Northampton unit unable to scrummage its way out of a wet paper bag in recent weeks. Humphreys will certainly stoke the fires in this theatre of activity, and will demand full support from Iestyn Thomas, who has some old-fashioned "dog" about him, and Ben Evans, who can be a right handful when the mood takes him.
According to Steve Hansen, Woodward's opposite number, this match offers his players an opportunity to "cleanse themselves of their last performance", and it may well be that they attempt to do so by playing a little dirty. Humphreys, Thomas and the no-fear youngster in the back row, Dafydd Jones, can mix it with the best of them, and if England lose their rag, they will be vulnerable. But even if the Welsh pack produces some quality possession, it is asking an awful lot of Ceri Sweeney, the outside-half from Pontypridd, to shape the game to his side's advantage on his first start at this level. Often, Sweeney cannot force a place in the Ponty team. If he stamps any sort of authority on this encounter, he should be granted the freedom of the valleys.
There is no logical reason why England should not win by 25 points or more. At Twickenham last season, they put 50 past a Welsh team armed with three Test Lions in Dafydd James, Rob Howley and Scott Quinnell; at this venue two years ago, they won 44-15 and scored six tries in the process. Martin Johnson, the visiting captain, expressed concern at the defensive frailties that cost his side 10 tries in their last four outings, adding: "If you concede three tries away from home, you generally stand a pretty good chance of losing." But Wales have not put three past England in Cardiff for almost a quarter of a century.
They must fear that if they manage the feat today, it will be because England are too busy scoring twice as many at the other end to worry about defending their own whitewash.
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