As the England squad heads to Portugal for their pre-Six Nations training camp, the opening fixture against Wales in less than two weeks’ time is sure to be on their minds – and rightly so, because this game could set the tone for the Championship, and maybe even the year ahead.
Each country’s first game in the RBS Six Nations is crucial to their prospects in what is a relatively short tournament. Lose that game, and mid-table mediocrity awaits, but a victory immediately creates momentum and sets that side up as one of the teams to beat.
Take England v Wales in 2008 as an example. England were ahead and looking comfortable when a Welsh comeback in the final quarter took everyone by surprise and gave them a valuable away win. Wales went on to clinch an unlikely Grand Slam – their second in four years – whilst England somehow finished second on points difference without ever looking like title contenders.
England’s schedule places additional significance on that first match. Their daunting trip to Cardiff on a Friday night is followed by three home fixtures with Italy, France and Scotland paying a visit to Twickenham.
A win against Wales and given the current form of their adversaries in rounds 2, 3 and 4, it’s not impossible that England could be four from four and heading to Dublin for a shot at the Grand Slam. That reminds me of 2003 for some reason.
However, a defeat in Cardiff against the injury-stricken Welsh, a stifled, limited performance against the Italians, and suddenly, France and Scotland appear to be much different propositions.
When we met last week, Mark Cueto agreed on the significance of that first game. “It’s going to be massive, and it’s vital that we get a win to carry on some of the momentum we built in the autumn.”
“All the boys love playing at the Millennium Stadium because the atmosphere is incredible. It’s just so noisy after everyone’s had a few beers at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, so it’s going to be unbelievable by 8 o’clock on a Friday night.”
Whilst England have lost a few key players to injury, the Welsh squad is missing a raft of key players, such as Adam Jones, Tom Shanklin, Andrew Bishop and Gethin Jenkins – but that doesn’t stop them being formidable opposition for England.
“The Welsh boys love to beat the English. In fact, everyone wants to beat the English. Particularly when they are at home in Cardiff.”
Mark Cueto is sponsored by Multipower Sportsfood. For sports nutrition tailored to your individual goals, please visit: www.multipoweruk.com