England and Wales. Two countries steeped in rugby history with a rivalry to match.
Since 1881 — when the nations met for the first time at London’s Richardson’s Field — it has always been a game with a difference, one with so much more riding on it than just the result.
For those born both sides of the Severn Bridge, it’s a match which generates something different to any other encounter; it raises patriotic fervour to new heights, causes you to sing that anthem just that little bit louder, and most importantly of all, leaves you praying your side comes out on top.
For 136 years the two teams have been locking horns both in London and Cardiff and the relative rarity of the fixtures — usually once a year in the Six Nations — means the intensity of the encounters is unlikely to diminish any time soon.
Last year saw England’s victory at Twickenham overshadowed by Joe Marler’s calling of Samson Lee as “Gypsy boy” – an offence for which he received a £20,000 (€23,500) fine and a two-game ban. In 2015, the Red Rose won again — this time in Cardiff — in a match which will be remembered best for the stand-off in the tunnel between the sides before kick-off.
Every year it seems some form of sideshow accompanies the build-up and as the 2017 version rolls round, it’s certainly no different. England — on a 15-match unbeaten run and bristling with intent under Eddie Jones — have arrived with their Australian coach hardly cooling the tensions.
“I can’t see that just because we drive down the M4 they (Wales) get an advantage,” said Jones this week, questioning why England have in the past been “petrified” of playing in the Welsh capital.
“It’s not different water, it’s not different air. The beer is the same, the pies are the same, the seats are the same, the grass is the same. Everything is the same.”
Jones has also indicated his belief that his team should always “expect” to beat a country the size of Wales, an opinion which saw the country’s defence coach Shaun Edwards liken the 57-year-old to outspoken former Nottingham Forest Brian Clough.
A war of words between the two sides is nothing new, with BBC Wales producing an unsavoury advert to promote their coverage of this year’s match which showed Welsh fans unable to say anything positive when asked what England meant to them.
The clip was swiftly pulled from air, but a social media outcry aside, the challenge for Wales is how to try and use the usual pre-match rhetoric to their advantage. While the two sides have had an almost equal share of wins over the years, it’s the team in white who go into this one as strong and deserving favourites.
Jones’ arrival has seen England transformed, their abject World Cup failure followed by a Six Nations Grand Slam, a 3-0 series win in Australia and a clean sweep of results last autumn. New Zealand’s world record unbeaten run of 18 games is now within touching distance and with Wales evolving, it all points in one direction.
But let’s get one thing straight here, Rob Howley’s side are far from out of this one.
In fact, the whole experience of what a Wales against England match in Cardiff brings could yet see them inflict a first defeat on Jones’ men. There is something truly special about the Welsh capital on days like today, something in the air which is hard to put your finger on.
“You are walking through Cardiff and everyone is wishing you luck,” said Edwards, a glint in his eye as he looked ahead to this weekend.
“I am sure it’s the same up and down Wales. It’s got that atmosphere in the build up to the game. These weeks are the reason you play rugby. We have a fantastic week coming up going into a huge challenge against probably the form team in world rugby. Everyone is excited about that.”
Edwards’ steely determination and willingness to embrace the enormity of today’s game sums up Wales’ approach. There are also similarities in the build-up to this game with the 2013 fixture in Cardiff. That year Wales were also under the interim guidance of Howley with Warren Gatland on British Lions duty. England were also firm favourites then and were aiming to secure a Grand Slam.
But with a force of nature behind them that year, Wales blew away their opponents in a 30-3 triumph that not only denied England a clean sweep, but also saw the home side seal the title on points difference. This time around things will be much closer, but it feels as Alun Wyn Jones’ men have more than a decent sniff of coming out on the right side of the result.
Embracing the occasion will come naturally to Wales, while England, hardly the sort of team to cower with Jones as boss, have shown in the past — 2013 being the prime example — that they have previous for failing to handle the Cardiff cauldron.
Whatever happens, 80 minutes of top-class rugby can be expected with both sets of supporters set to be put through every range of emotion. It will be some encounter, but with the force of a nation behind them, a narrow home win could be on the cards.
Wales to win, narrowly, and leave their supporters with the bragging rights for the next 12 months.
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