Parochial battle set to define two legacies

From shortly before 8pm tonight the streets from Camden to Carmarthen will be deserted.

The hit parade will not be chosen by the DJ but rather by 30 men on a patch of grass in south-west London where the eyes of the world will be on this most parochial of battles.

It will be brutal. There will be blood, and reputations will be both forged and destroyed. Odds are that one of the coaches involved, Stuart Lancaster and Warren Gatland, will not recover from the result.

England have met Wales on 126 previous occasions but nothing in their history can match this.

Just 4,000 watched the first international between these sides as England won by eight goals to nil all the way back in February 1881.

Tonight there will be 82,000 at Twickenham and a television audience in the hundreds of millions worldwide.

This is the biggest game in the toughest World Cup Pool in history. Win and you can touch the quarter-finals. Lose and an ignominious exit on home soil — and Wales can consider this a home tournament, in many ways — is staring you in the face.

Those involved have different ways of dealing with the unique pressure. Sam Warburton, the Wales captain, likes to browse the online property market. Tom Wood, the England flanker, prefers to watch DIY videos or — genuinely — take his chainsaw to a tree in the Surrey countryside or practice his archery.

Those arrows will not be the only things quivering tonight.

Neville O’Donoghue and Steve Neville discuss the Rugby World Cup and who will win it.

“Unless we meet again in the final, this will be the biggest game I have ever played in,” says Warburton, a man who has captained the Lions in a victorious Test series in Australia, don’t forget.

These are not idle words. The RFU’s annual turnover is over £150m (€203m) and it is predicated solely on forging the best England team possible. If Lancaster does not bring success then both he and this tournament as a whole will suffer.

As such it is bewildering to see the extent to which the England head coach has gambled ahead of what he admits is the biggest game in his career.

Everything the Lancastrian has done since succeeding Martin Johnson in 2012 has been based on logic, pragmatism, and common sense.

His most left-field calls — think picking Manu Tuilagi out of position on the wing against the All Blacks last summer — were flagged up in press conferences some three months before they happened.

Yet as the tournament has edged closer he has taken risks, gone against type and wagered both his own future and that of the England team on some astonishingly brave (some would say foolhardy) calls.

Picking Sam Burgess in his squad for the World Cup after just 10 months in rugby union since switching from league was one thing, but the midfield he has conjured up here is astounding.

George Ford has made the fly-half shirt his own throughout 2015 but is jettisoned for Owen Farrell. With Jonathan Joseph injured — a cruel blow for Lancaster — he has brought Burgess in at inside-centre and moved Brad Barritt outside him.

It is a team designed to take on ‘Warrenball’ and match Wales physically. On the flip side it offers little to no creativity and potentially denies ball to England’s back three, their strongest suit over the past four games.

“I’m aware of the stakes and I understand the consequences,” said Lancaster of his selections.

“If you’re asking if I’m taking a gamble — if this selection has risk attached to it — I’d say that when I look down the team-sheet I see players who are in form, and in whom I have complete confidence.”

But is it enough to look at Jamie Roberts or Scott Williams and decide to go through rather than around them? “The collisions in the middle of the pitch will be huge,” acknowledges Hallam Amos, the Welsh wing who turned 21 this week.

“Jamie Roberts and Sam Burgess are both 110 or 115kg. I like to get stuck in but size-wise I’m not up to them. I’ll have to use my footwork.”

The concern is that there will be precious little footwork on show. The biggest game of this World Cup will have the brutal power to match. It may be worth installing a seismometer underneath the Twickenham turf because when Burgess and Roberts first meet it will register on the Richter scale.

There is friendship underneath the bravado, too. Tom Youngs, the England hooker, bonded with Welsh flanker Dan Lydiate on the 2013 Lions tour over their shared love of farming.

Two of England’s assistant coaches, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree, performed the same role to Gatland with the Lions on that tour.

“Warren is a very good guy,” said Farrell. “He’s passionate about rugby and I look forward to meeting up with him on Saturday. We send texts every now and again but he keeps himself to himself.

“Will he be creating a siege mentality ahead of the weekend? Of that I have absolutely no doubt.”

The siege mentality comes from the fact that Wales are cruelly undermined by injuries, with certain starters such as Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb invalided out of the tournament.

Within the Welsh camp there is a feeling England’s selection — focusing on negating Welsh strengths rather than emphasising English ones — has played into their hands.

England have held the whip hand over the past two years. Their brutal 30-3 defeat in Cardiff when going for a Grand Slam in 2013 was perhaps the most critical moment of Lancaster’s tenure so far.

It cost a number of players places on the Lions tour, it led to a revamp of Twickenham in an attempt to ape the fervent atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium, and it lit a fire in a few bellies. Since then England have won both meetings with the Welsh dragon.

“On the back of that 2013 game we have long earmarked this fixture as our pride was severely damaged,” says Wood.

“We suffered that day and a lot of us paid a heavy price. That is something those of us who were there have never forgotten. Hopefully it will inspire us this weekend.”

Warburton agrees. “Since 2013 England are a completely different team. And in 2014 Twickenham was a completely different place to play than in 2012. In 2012 the atmosphere was great, but in 2014, my God, it was amazing.

“They rebranded the stadium that year and there was the hashtag #carrythemhome. There was a massive emphasis on the crowd and as an opposition country we could definitely notice that.

“Playing away from home you don’t get nervous playing against a hostile crowd — you love it — but it does lift the home team and that was what they did to the England team that year.”

Wales will have 20,000 supporters in the crowd but England are narrow favourites. It will be the tightest and one of the most memorable games of the tournament. The 127th meeting between these sides is one that the entire world will want to watch. It promises to be unmissable.

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