Soaking up Welsh 'hospitality' key if England areto toast success – Robshaw
England have found themselves in some dark places in the 15 months since Stuart Lancaster took over as head coach with a brief to restore the team to something approaching international respectability, but they have yet to pass through a long, dark night of the soul. That dubious pleasure awaits them in Cardiff this evening, when they attempt to break new ground by securing a Grand Slam on Welsh soil.
A cursory reading of the runes suggests that the odds are stacked against them, for they have no obvious reference points. Only twice in championship history have England gone in search of a clean sweep against their nearest and less-than-dearest, both times in London. More pertinently, only a handful of the starting line-up know what it is to play a Test match at the Millennium Stadium – or, in most cases, a match of any description there.
"I watched a game there when I was about 15," said Chris Robshaw (right), the England captain, "and the ground wasn't even close to being full. As I remember it, the bottom tier of seats was the only section open to supporters. I think it will feel a bit different this time."
His thinking was absolutely spot on. Some 75,000 spectators will fill the place for this Six Nations title decider – corporate types in England have been paying four times face value for their tickets – and with the roof drawn across the most imposing city-centre venue in world rugby, the noise level will be off the scale. By comparison, a reformed Led Zeppelin would sound like a barbershop quartet rehearsing quietly in the village hall so as not to interrupt the whist drive.
Yet England have been in a similar hell hole, albeit far away from the hills and valleys of the red-dragon lair, and just about emerged with their spirit unbroken and their self-respect intact. If they prevail over the reigning champions and land themselves a first clean sweep in a decade, they will look back fondly on a match they lost, honourably and courageously, against the Springboks at Ellis Park in Johannesburg last June.
"That was the most hostile place I've experienced," said Robshaw, "and the same goes for most of the people in this team. They may not have played at the Millennium Stadium, but they were there that day in Ellis Park."
Had he gone into the fine detail of the occasion, he would have identified it as the point when this England team found itself, after a truly horrible shellacking in the opening quarter, able to recover and run the South Africans close. Very good All Black and Wallaby teams had cracked in the face of such adversity up there in the heartland of the Boer. That England did the opposite said much for their collective resilience.
They will need every last drop of bloody-minded cussedness this evening, because Wales have the weaponry to blow holes in their defences. Leigh Halfpenny may have slipped off his kicking standard briefly at Murrayfield last weekend, but the full-back from Gorseinon has both the range and technique to punish even the slightest error by the men in white.
Alex Cuthbert and, in particular, George North are looking ever more threatening on the wings; Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, the two Lions Test props, are beginning to operate at full throttle; Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Evans and Sam Warburton give the back five of the scrum a menacing look.
Robshaw, more animated than in any eve-of-match address, acknowledged all that and more. "Wales have been very clear about the kind of hospitality they want to show us," he said with a knowing glint in his eye, indicating that the first three syllables of the h-word were the ones that really counted. "We'll just have to soak it up and try not to give the Welsh crowd a chance to get into the game. We've been in intimidating environments before. We understand what's needed."
The hard men in the England team – centre Brad Barritt, No 8 Tom Wood and, especially, the fire-and-ice outside-half Owen Farrell – know what is needed and will turn up in full war paint. Farrell, first out of the trenches against France, is a natural tone-setter; when the players go into their final huddle ahead of kick-off, it will be he who does most of the talking.
He will also be doing the goal-kicking, always assuming his dodgy thigh muscle holds up under the guaranteed assaults of Warburton, Toby Faletau and company.
But it is Wales who start as favourites, if only marginal ones. Robshaw did not acknowledge this in so many words, but he hinted at it when asked how much it would mean to him to end England's long wait for a Grand Slam – a prize that eluded two head coaches in Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton, a manager in Martin Johnson and an entire generation of players.
"Of course it would be nice to play a part in history," the captain said, "but it's one thing saying that here and quite another doing it on the pitch."
(© Independent News Service)
WALES – L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North; D Biggar, M Phillips; G Jenkins (capt), R Hibbard, A Jones, AW Jones, I Evans, S Warburton, J Tipuric, T Faletau.
Reps: K Owens, P James, S Andrews, A Coombs, A Shingler, L Williams, J Hook, S Williams.
ENGLAND – A Goode; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, M Brown; O Farrell, B Youngs; J Marler, T Youngs, D Cole, J Launchbury, G Parling, T Croft, C Robshaw (capt), T Wood. Reps: D Hartley, D Wilson, M Vunipola, C Lawes, J Haskell, D Care, T Flood, B Twelvetrees.
Wales v England,
Live, RTE2/BBC1, 5.0
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