Stuart Lancaster believes England need to go into the 2015 Rugby World Cup having tasted Grand Slam glory and there will be no better opportunity to achieve it than against Wales in Cardiff.
Saturday’s showdown at the Millennium Stadium will be a seismic title decider, with England chasing a first RBS Six Nations clean sweep in a decade and Wales looking to retain their championship crown.
Everything will be on the line and for England to triumph in those circumstances, just 14 months into their development as a team, would be a staggering achievement in its own right. Lancaster recognises it would also be a significant staging post in his four-year plan to bring the Webb Ellis Cup back to Twickenham in 2015.
“When I took over I didn’t have a 2013 Grand Slam down as a target. The long-term plan is to build a team with the required experience by 2015,” Lancaster said. “As part of that experience, you want the players to play in a game that’s akin to a final, which is basically what this game is.
“It’s a brilliant experience for the players and it will certainly help us with that long-term plan. [To win a Grand Slam] would give you that inner confidence and belief that you can win in big games and finals.
“Learning to win the southern hemisphere will be part of it as well, but the reality is that, come 2015, we’re going to be playing Wales in a huge pool game.
“The more experience you can get of playing under the pressure of these type of games the better for the players.”
England have won 12 Grand Slams, but they have never sealed one in Cardiff and Lancaster feels there would be no better fixture in which to create a slice of history. “I don’t think [there is a better fixture], not in the context of where we are,” Lancaster said. “Both sides have got the chance to win the championship, so effectively it’s a shootout.”
England go into the match at full strength after Joe Launchbury (elbow) and Geoff Parling (shoulder) passed breakfast-time fitness tests yesterday to keep their places in the second row.
Lancaster has made four changes from the 18-11 win against Italy. Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs return in the half-backs, Tom Croft has replaced James Haskell at blindside flanker and Joe Marler got the nod ahead of Mako Vunipola.
Farrell missed the win against Italy with a thigh strain, but he has been brought straight back, with Lancaster expecting his “unique” stand-off to thrive in the Millennium Stadium cauldron.
“He has what very few young players have, particularly in the fly-half position, that big-game temperament and the ability to rise to the occasion,” Lancaster said. “He doesn’t seem fazed by an occasion.”
England opened their campaign by running four tries past Scotland but their three victories over Ireland, France and Italy were down to character, resilience and defensive fortitude.
Those qualities are the bedrock of Lancaster’s England side, forged through moments of adversity over the past 14 months and the reason his men go to Wales “with a quiet confidence”.
“We’re hard to beat because we’re strong at the basics. Our set piece is strong, our defence is strong, but, most importantly, our attitude and desire to work for each other is strong,” Lancaster said. “There have been some defining moments in the development of that, none more so than at Ellis Park last summer when we were 25-3 down to South Africa, playing at altitude, playing in a firestorm, getting back to 31-27. That was down to character and work-rate. You draw on that.”
v Wales at Millennium Stadium
Tomorrow, kick-off 5pm
15 Alex Goode
14 Chris Ashton
13 Manu Tuilagi
12 Brad Barritt
11 Mike Brown
10 Owen Farrell
9 Ben Youngs
1 Joe Marler
2 Tom Youngs
3 Dan Cole
4 Joe Launchbury
5 Geoff Parling
6 Tom Croft
7 Chris Robshaw (capt)
8 Tom Wood
Subs: Dylan Hartley, David Wilson, Mako Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Danny Care, Toby Flood, Billy Twelvetrees