England must use intimidation as inspiration in the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium
22:49 GMT, 15 March 2013
08:13 GMT, 16 March 2013
The Millennium Stadium is a unique
ground. Sitting bang in the middle of the city of Cardiff, the stadium
feels like the beating heart of Wales on match days.
There are few venues around the world
where supporters can finish their pints with five minutes to spare,
pour out of the pubs and take their seats in time for kick-off.
As a coach, when you have said your
final few words to the team in the relative peace of the dressing room
and walk out to hear the crowd singing under that roof, it can feel like
you are emerging into the Colosseum in Rome.
Not intimidated: Chris Ashton dives over to score at the Millennium Stadium in 2011 when England beat Wales 26-19
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Stuart Lancaster and his players will
sense that fever with a welcome like no other. Despite the fierce
rivalry, you get better looked after in Wales than anywhere else – they
want to thrash you, but they want it to be a fair fight.
There are no silly games – nobody rushes you off the pitch or limits the number of balls you have for the warm-up.
Hostility is manifest in the passionate support, not stupid mind games.
In 2001, when I took England to
Wales for our first ever match at the Millennium Stadium, I decided we
should stay in Cardiff Bay because I wanted to be near town and a part
of the build-up, not stuck on the outskirts and excluded from the buzz.
You want to be in the thick of it so you're not overwhelmed when you come in on match day, particularly for a 5pm kick-off.
From the Monday morning of the build-up to that Test almost every press conference question was about the stadium.
'Intimidation' was clearly the theme but I made it clear that we were playing the Welsh team, not the stadium. I held a meeting that night and told the players to turn the word 'intimidation' into 'inspiration'.
Players prepare in different ways. Hooker Steve Thompson, for example, braced himself for the Cardiff cacophony by practising his lineout throwing with white noise blasting through his headphones. It paid off as on the day his set-piece was as accurate as ever.
The players had never been inside the ground until we were given a tour of the stadium the day before the game.
Time to shine: Ben Youngs goes through the motions under the Millennium Stadium roof
Ready for battle: Manu Tuilagi passes the ball during the England captain's run at the Millennium Stadium
One game from glory: Stuart Lancaster hopes England can win their final game of the Six Nations and secure the Grand Slam
RBS 6 NATIONS TITLE – PERMUTATIONS
England's victory over Italy means a win against Wales in Cardiff would seal a first Grand Slam in a decade.
However, Wales have everything to play for because a victory for them could be enough to retain the RBS 6 Nations title and leave England empty-handed.
England are currently two points ahead of Wales in the table and with a points-difference advantage of 14.
Under tournament rules, if the points and points difference end level then the championship would be decided on tries scored.
Wales hold the advantage 7-5 going into the final round. If tries scored is also level, the title is shared.
Here, we examine the permutations:
ENGLAND WIN GRAND SLAM
An England victory by any margin would secure a first Grand Slam triumph in a decade.
ENGLAND WIN TITLE
An England defeat by six points or fewer would still be enough to seal the title.
If England lose by seven points but outscore Wales by three tries or more then Stuart Lancaster's men would win the title.
WALES WIN TITLE
A Wales victory by seven points, providing they stay ahead of England on tournament tries, would see Rob Howley's men retain the title.
If Wales win by seven points but England score two more tries then the title would be shared.
I wanted my team, particularly the back three, to get used to catching high balls under the lights and watching the flight of balls against the closed roof.
We walked into the away dressing room to find giant cardboard cutouts of the entire Welsh team – bigger than life size.
You've never heard such laughter in your life. It turned out they were there for tourists as part of the stadium tour, but the stadium officials had genuinely forgotten to move them.
The facilities in the stadium are second to none.
The away dressing room is big and spacious, unlike at Murrayfield where there is a giant pillar in the middle.
When we arrived on match day, I walked on to the pitch with Martin Johnson and we were booed by the supporters.
Johnno walked into the centre of the pitch and held his hands in the air – making it very clear this was exactly where he wanted to be.
The home and away dressing rooms are about 50 metres apart in a long corridor, so you are kept well away from your opponents.
While football players tend to hang out in the tunnel before coming out together that doesn't happen in rugby.
You come out separately – England to subdued cheers, Wales to pyrotechnics, blasting music and booming choirs.
The first time you see your opponents is when you line up for the anthems. It is all part of the magic.
One of the few things I miss from my coaching days is the dressing-room atmosphere on days like today.
It is the most electric place in the world with 20 minutes to go before
kickoff – a mix of adrenaline, fear and anticipation.
Ten players in
Lancaster's starting XV have never experienced that atmosphere and I
hope they are inspired, not intimidated.
Real champions thrive in enemy
territory. The dressing room against Wales was always noisier than at
home. Guys such as Lawrence Dallaglio, Will Greenwood and Matt Dawson
would come into their own.
All white on the night: Steve Thompson prepared by blasting white noise into his headphones
Glorying in the rivalry: Martin Johnston was never one to be intimidated
I expect Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell, Tom
Youngs and Geoff Parling to do the same, supporting captain Chris
Robshaw to deliver the final key messages and get everybody focused on
We won comfortably on that first trip – but that doesn't mean it wasn't a dramatic day.
the game we returned to the hotel to change for the post-match dinner
but travelling back to the stadium was a nightmare.
lot of supporters had been drinking all day and we were stuck in a sea
of red shirts, crawling through the crowds at three or four mph with a
giant red rose on the side of the coach.
Man alive: Lawrence Dallaglio came into his own in the dressing room
I had a superstition and would sit front left in the coach. A man in the crowds caught my eye because he had obviously had a big day out but was running straight towards us as if he was planning to tackle the coach.
At the last minute, he sidestepped to his right in Gerald Davies-style but was promptly knocked out cold by the large wing mirror.
I stopped the coach and got out, followed by a few players and our doctor, who rushed to help while we radioed for the police.
Suddenly I realised there was me and most of the England team in the middle of a crowd of drunk fans standing over a prostrate Welshman. It looked like we had run him over!
People started pointing fingers and it all got a little tense.
Then a crowd of equally well-oiled England fans pushed their way to the front and it really started to get a bit tasty. The police arrived just in time and sense prevailed.
That was more than 10 years ago, when England had a far stronger team than Wales.
Since then, Wales have become something of a nation of experts in this tournament – to win three Grand Slams in the last eight years is an amazing achievement.
I had a great team and we only did it once. But Lancaster's team are winners and I believe they will be inspired by playing in Cardiff.
They have only ever been beaten by single figures so this game will be close.
If England keep their cool in the Cardiff cauldron, they are good enough to win.
I truly hope they do. It is time a new generation of Englishmen stepped up to the plate and won the Grand Slam.
MY SIX KEY BATTLE AREAS…
1. KEEP COOL IN THE CAULDRON
Show respect: Referee Steve Walsh (left) has a chat with France captain Thierry Dusautoir
This England team have an abundance of testosterone flowing through them and Wales will target the players who have a history of reacting.
Joe Marler, Owen Farrell, Chris Ashton and Mike Brown have had their moments and this can be a good thing – the 2003 team were at their best when there was a bit of sulphur in the air.
But you have to tread the line between never taking a step backwards and not getting distracted or involved in anything that puts you or your team-mates off their game.
England have recieved two yellow cards in this tournament, another today could cost them the Grand Slam. Let the score do the talking and silence the crowd.
The message from Stuart Lancaster must be about finding the crucial balance – you have to compete for the ball at the breakdown, but needless penalties will kill your team.
Referee Steve Walsh was extremely strict at the contact zone in Dublin last weekend.
Listen to him, repeat his calls, react and adapt to how he is marshalling that breakdown.
If he starts penalising the tackler for not rolling away, then make a show of releasing the player early and doing what he asks.
Be smart – get the wrong side of Walsh and you're in trouble.
2. GO FORWARD BEFORE YOU GO WIDE
England have not scored a try against Wales for 196 minutes but it will be almost impossible for them to win without doing so in a game as tight as this, so they must sort out their attacking strategies.
The ambition was there against Italy, the failure was in execution.
There is no point passing the ball out wide if the opposition have more defenders in the line than you have attackers, as was often the case against Italy.
Please release me: Ben Youngs will be key to getting the ball out wide
Use the early phases to charge directly forward and suck more defenders into the ruck and the narrow channels.
Then, when there is space out wide, release the ball.
Ben Youngs has to lead this, ordering the forwards to use their firepower and go 'route one' very early in the game.
3. OPTIONS ARE KEY TO ATTACK
Talisman Owen Farrell returns and England will take confidence in having their best half-back pairing in the spine of the side, but full back Alex Goode is key to offering a second option in attack.
The clash of the centres will be monstrous in midfield but I hope Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi have the confidence not just to run into contact but to pass the ball before contact.
Use Tuilagi as a decoy and out-think the Welsh. This is where Goode is key.
Goode idea: Alex Goode can be used to out-think Wales
He has gone quiet in games, so he needs to come into the attack as a second receiver to create plays and get the side playing more expansively.
Barritt and Tuilagi can become a great pairing but they need Goode to give Farrell more options in the inside centre role.
4. IT'S A MISTAKE TO FOCUS ONLY ON THE DANGERMEN
Alex Cuthbert and George North are giant dangers on the wing – I couldn't believe just how big George was when I met him!
He is such an intelligent player, too, so Chris Ashton has his work cut out. Both wingers come looking for crash balls either inside or outside the fly-half.
But Wales' back line have the footballing ability to miss the winger out and if England focus on one player they can get caught out.
England just need to keep their defensive shape. If the big guys come at you hard it is about technique – hit them hard and low.
North star: Wales winger George North could cause all sorts of problems for England
If your technique is sloppy – and England have been guilty of going in too high recently – then you will look stupid.
I expect a big step up in England's tackling today, Ashton included.
Both defensive coaches, Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards, have brought huge rugby league influences into these sides.
League is fundamentally a simpler game with a bigger emphasis on defence, especially the blitz defence where players rush up and 'get in the face' of attackers.
Wales have gone 277 minutes without conceding a try (they could beat my team's tournament record of 319 minutes).
The challenge is keeping your shape when your lungs are burning and your brain is starved of oxygen.
This game will be won in the last 10 minutes and that is when the fitness of these two teams will be tested.
Power play: Stopping Sam Warburton
in his tracks will be one of England's big
5. TARGET WARBURTON
It is less than 100 days to the first Lions Test and the backrow battle will be fascinating – but the turnover contest is not a question of Chris Robshaw v Sam Warburton.
Whichever England player arrives at the breakdown first has to target Warburton. Against a player of his strength, you have to decide – attack the ball or attack him.
You need to try to get him off the ball before he sets up in that 'crouched jackal' position over it.
Once he is set up, you won't be able to move him, so hit him as early as you can within the laws of the game.
6. GET THE BALL IN AND OUT OF THE SCRUM
The bigger the game, the bigger the basics. Basics are the scrum, the lineout and the restart.
For all the attacking flair in these teams out wide, if you do not nail those three foundations then you cannot create real momentum.
In the front row, Joe Marler and Dan Cole must deal with Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, who have been the cornerstone of Wales' three Grand Slams, so England have to be clever.
The stadium turf has a tendency to cut up so you want to get the ball in, out and away.
Win the engagement and use the scrum as a platform to restart your attack quickly.
If you leave the ball in and the scrum collapses you give the referee an opportunity to penalise you.
At restarts, England must be aware of the aerial threat of North and Cuthbert, who can out-jump forwards. Do not let them get to the ball first.