Tomorrow evening Wales take on England in Cardiff in the opening match of the 2015 6 Nations. Two years ago England were at the end of a thrashing by Wales in their last game of the Championships (see my blog about the match here), losing 30-3 to a rampant Wales. At Twickenham last year England comfortably beat Wales, winning 29-18. Wales and England have been playing each other since 1881, with 125 matches played between them. England have won 57, Wales have won 56, and 12 matches have been drawn. So, it couldn’t be much closer really between the two countries.
Over the last 10 years Wales have had the upper hand over England, since 2005 Wales and England have played each other 13 times with Wales having won 7 times and England 6 times. However, three of these matches were World Cup warm-up matches, so if we just look at the 6 Nations matches then Wales have won 6 of the 10 since 2005, winning at home in 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2013 and away in 2008 and 2012. We have lost once at home to England in the 6 Nations since 2005, namely in 2009. Wales have beaten England twice in Twickenham in this period, in 2008 and 2012, both Grand Slam years!
The Wales v England match was also the first match of Wales’ 2005 6 Nations campaign, and was the beginning of Wales’ most recent “golden era” during which we have won three Grand Slams (2005, 2008 and 2012) and four 6 Nations titles (2005, 2008, 2012 and 2013). When we beat England in that 2005 match it was the first time we had beaten them since 1999, when we beat them 32-31 due to a last-gasp try by Scott Gibbs.
Tomorrow evening’s match is important for both sides. Win your first match in the 6 Nations and a team can rapidly gain momentum; conversely losing it can suck away a team’s self belief and can mean bleak prospects for the rest of the tournament. Added to that are the additional factors that England’s last visit to the Millennium Stadium was an absolute drubbing, and that the two sides are in the same group in the World Cup later this year.
Whereas the Welsh team is at full strength with all of Gatland’s first choice players available, the same cannot be said for England who have a horrendous injury list. In fact, if Wales had so many first choice players out injured we probably wouldn’t even have a team to put out ;), but England has so many more professional rugby players than any other country that they can also boast unparalleled strength in depth.
Gatland made the unusual step of announcing the Welsh team two days early, on Monday rather than yesterday. He said it was because he would be telling the players themselves on Monday and decided he didn’t want the team selection to leak out in the intervening two days. But, I suspect it is more to do with England’s extensive injury list and Gatland playing mind-games with his opposite number Stuart Lancaster by highlighting how settled the Welsh team is. This is exactly Gareth Thomas’ take on it too, see below. Apart from the question as to whether Gatland would start with Liam Williams in the back three, the rest of the team had pretty much picked itself and most Welsh rugby fans could have named it two months ago after we beat South Africa 12-6 in Cardiff.
Make no mistake, tomorrow evening’s game is massive for us here in Wales. Having been to a 5 Nations match in Twickenham (back in 1983! It was England v France), the atmospheres do not compare. All of Cardiff is taken over by rugby fans on an international day, with the iconic Millennium Stadium being right in the centre of the city. Also, the design of the stadium with the steep stands means the crowd are nearly on top of the pitch, creating an atmosphere which is just not found in any other rugby stadium.
England can expect to be faced with a wall of noise from 74,000 passionate Welsh fans. I have not heard whether the roof will be closed or not, Gatland has stated that he wants it closed but it requires both teams to agree so it will be up to England to decide. But, whether open or closed I think we can expect a ferocious encounter, and I am confident Wales can win and level the series between the two rivals at 57 wins each.