Tuesday 16 January 2018

Morgan's youthful enthusiasm will be tested to the full by Welsh powerhouses

Paul Hayward

This morning, in the Gloucestershire market town of Dursley, a minibus will set off rammed with relatives and friends of a No 8 making his first start for England against Wales at Twickenham. Ben Morgan's dad will drive.

This throwback to more Corinthian days is in tune with the romantic rawness and inexperience of Stuart Lancaster's third England starting XV.

Morgan's stepping stones to Twickenham have been Dursley, Cinderford, Merthyr ('The Ironmen') and the Scarlets of Llanelli.

In his official biography we are told: "Before his elevation to the England senior squad, Ben's top memory was beating Yorkshire in the U-20 final at Twickenham in May 2008."

The good news is that Morgan has scored a try on English rugby's sacred turf. Less encouraging is that seven of England's starters have never played at Twickenham. The No 8, scrum-half and fly-half are international virgins on home soil.

You mooch around the England camp expecting to smell terror creeping across the ranks. You find none. "It's just an exciting time. Everything's new and it's fresh and the whole group has a massive hunger to succeed," Morgan says. "We want to go out there and show our home support what we're made of."

What they're made of -- Wales will hope -- is a candyfloss of excessive faith in players making overnight leaps from the second tier to brutal Six Nations combat. This is the youngest side England have fielded in the Championship.

At this level, their 182 caps would not cover the bruises a mobile and muscular Welsh team will seek to inflict in England's homecoming from a lamentable World Cup campaign.

As a reminder of that now seemingly unmentionable calamity, the ferry-jumping Manu Tuilagi ("Manu overboard!") is back at centre to confront the Welsh midfield. A vaguely sadistic grin creeps across Tuilagi's face at the mention of Welsh physicality: "I always go into rugby with the mindset of being very physical," he smiles.

"Wales have got massive backs -- it's going to be the game you want to play in."

Tuilagi (seven caps) is a veteran compared to Morgan, Owen Farrell, Lee Dickson, the new scrum-half, or Geoff Parling, the self-confessed "70s throwback" with the Wurzel coif and facial hair. The England gamble is on spirit, unity, appetite, potential.

Lancaster's big hope is that these young men will stride through the flames together and emerge as hardened international stalwarts.

Certainly this is the most relaxed England camp of recent memory. The players are untainted by ego, agendas or training-ground jaundice.

"We've all bought into the culture that Stuart, Faz (Andy Farrell) and Wig (Graham Rowntree) have brought," says Dickson.

"There's no Sarries, Northampton, Leicester. It's team England -- we're all together. We've all got one goal. It's to go out and win at the weekend.

"It's brilliant coming into an environment like this where everyone's together. It makes you want to go out at the weekend and play for each other, play for your country. You know the guy next to you wants to play exactly the same way for you."

With few reference points the recruits derive strength from the away wins in Scotland and Italy, where charge-downs from the now-injured Charlie Hodgson brought the team's only tries. "We've had two hard away games and we've won," Dickson says. "To go nine points down (in Italy), some people would put their heads down. Everyone bought into what captain Chris Robshaw said. We clawed it back and got a narrow win."

He thought he had broken his hand in a cameo against Scotland but came on for Ben Youngs again in Italy and now replaces his more senior, but stuttering, colleague from the start.

"It's been a bit of a roller-coaster," he says. "I owe a lot to Stuart. I played for him with the Saxons, he's given me this opportunity and I'm thriving on it."

A mention of Mike Phillips, his formidable Welsh counterpart, fails to spook him: "I'm going to go out there and be myself. I'm not worrying about what's out there."

None of this is synthetic or PR-concocted. Instead we see a caretaker coach entrusting the future in men made giddy by the new togetherness. Adversity may change this. It usually does. Fame is another corrosive juice.

Morgan has received texts from Scarlets friends saying: "We wish you the worst of luck." He says: "I'm not going to say anything back. You don't want to fuel the fire."

He is pretty much intoxicated by the thought of facing a tough Welsh back-row of Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau. You can see how new it all is to him from his preoccupation with the rituals around the contest: "I've had the experience of playing away -- and the buzz of energy that comes up when the opposition sing their anthem seems to make the whole stadium erupt. So that's something I'm particularly looking forward to -- a stadium full of English supporters."

"I've got a minibus coming from Dursley with as many people as can squeeze in. They've been brilliant supporting me as a youngster and they're as excited about it as I am."

May all this innocence survive what's to come. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

ENGLAND -- B Foden; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, L Dickson; A Corbisiero, D Hartley, D Cole, M Botha, G Parling, T Croft, C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan. Subs: R Webber, M Stevens, C Lawes, P Dowson, B Youngs, T Flood, M Brown.

WALES -- L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, J Davies, J Roberts, G North; R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins, K Owens, A Jones, A-W Jones, I Evans, D Lydiate, S Warburton (capt), T Faletau. Subs: R Hibbard, P James, R Jones, J Tipuric, L Williams, S Jones, S Williams.

REF -- S Walsh (Australia).

England v Wales,

Live, RTE 2/BBC 1, 4.0

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