A WEEK into the World Cup and we arrive at the first blockbuster contest of a tournament which is already living up to widespread predictions that it will be the best ever.
England against Wales at Twickenham tonight has the feel of something more momentous than a mere pool game. It is foreseeable that some of the knockout games to come will struggle to reach the fevered build-up of this one and past crunch Six Nations clashes between these old rivals seem a little tame in comparison. Set in the context of a UK-based World Cup, in a “pool of death” that leaves no margin for error, even some of the greatest figures to have featured in the fixture have talked it up as the biggest England v Wales game ever.
The nations have tangled twice in World Cups before, both at the quarter-final stage and both in Brisbane, Wales winning in 1987 and eventual champions England in 2003. In all 126 meetings since the first in Blackheath 134 years ago, England edge the head-to-head 58-56 with 12 draws.
Japan coach Eddie Jones indulged in a bit of mind-games ahead of the clash with Scotland, but it was child’s play when compared with the master of psychological warfare Warren Gatland.
That said, it had all been a bit quiet in the past week from the crafty Kiwi, to the point where it was being reported that the lack of mind-games was a mind-game in itself.
“We’re still waiting for our team talk from Warren,” said England backs coach Andy Farrell earlier in the week. When asked if he would be disappointed if nothing was forthcoming in that department, Farrell replied: “I don’t know whether he will be able to help himself or not. There will be something that he will be chewing over within his mind.”
When Gatland did face the media, the most provocative he got was the use of the word “smash” when asked if Wales would be targeting Sam Burgess, the former rugby league star who starts at centre tonight with just 112 minutes of international union under his belt.
“We won’t be trying to single out Sam Burgess at all,” said Gatland. “We will be going out there to smash him like everyone else.”
Burgess, who comes in for the injured Jonathan Joseph, faces the daunting challenge of going head-to-head with the vastly experienced Jamie Roberts, who has 70 Wales caps and two Lions Test series to his name.
But Gatland said: “[Burgess] has got inexperience at rugby union, but not at big occasions. We’re not rubbing our hands together about one player thinking there’s a weakness there – that is not the way we look at it.
“When you underestimate a player, it comes back to bite you.”
Perhaps that was a reference to Burgess’ “Who’s that?” comment about Scott Williams when asked about the Welsh outside centre’s quote that he considered Joseph as a harder player to defend against.
Of course, it could be said that Gatland doesn’t need to throw any more grenades, with the one he chucked in a couple of weeks ago about counterpart Stuart Lancaster still not knowing what his best side is, hitting the spot. The England coach insists his decision to replace stand-off George Ford with Owen Farrell and throw in Burgess is not, as former Scotland captain Gavin Hastings suggested, a “panic” move. However, there is no denying that changing such a key position at this stage and remodelling the backline to accommodate Burgess, must give Wales a sense that there is a bit of uncertainty in the minds of the hosts.
Ford was “devastated and gutted” by his relegation to the bench, according to his father Mike, but the man who has replaced him insists it won’t affect the pair’s long-standing friendship.
“We have been exactly the same. Absolutely normal. We talk about everything anyway, it’s pretty open between us,” Farrell said.
“It’s exactly the same as it was last week, as it was in the autumn when he got picked and I went on the bench. Exactly the same.
“We’ve played with each other since we went to school together at 13 or 14 and then played for England at Under-16, 18 and 20 levels. We are just open with each other.
“Rugby-wise we are two people who are obsessed with the game. We like to talk about it and we are probably a bit boring – all we talk about is rugby.”
Ford has started ten out of England’s last 11 matches, only occupying the bench for the first game of the warm-up series, and is a more creative and rounded player than the rugged Farrell.
“Every player’s different. George is a brilliant player and showed that in the Six Nations and in the last year, so I’ll try to bring what I can to the game,” Farrell said. “People can say what they want. It is the people inside the camp that count to me, the people around me. External factors don’t matter to us.”
The selection debate has taken the focus away from Wales’ well-documented injury travails, which have left them unquestionably weakened. When the hype subsides and the whistle blows tonight, the hosts will start favourites and the Twickenham factor may well prove decisive.