Arguably set to be the game of the Championship, with both teams unbeaten, Wales v England in Round Three is shaping up to be a belter. With the hostile environment of in Cardiff’s Principality Stadium giving Wales an edge at home, but England playing the best rugby of the tournament, it is set to be a barnstorming affair.
Shane Williams, the leading try-scorer for his country, knows a thing or two about the home advantage of the venue, having beaten England there three times. But the flying winger is not willing to commit to a prediction. “If the first two rounds are anything to go by,” he says, “it’s going to be very difficult for Wales. England have proven that they’re the best team performance-wise in this Championship and Wales have had two very difficult games. But they play better at the Principality Stadium and will definitely have targeted the home games against England and Ireland. The beauty of the Six Nations is that anything can happen on the day. Wales know they’re good enough but England, performing the way they have been, are world beaters. It’s going to be a big game.”
Few places in world rugby boast the ‘home advantage’ that Williams hints at than the Principality Stadium. While any player would prefer to play at home, the passion of the Welsh supporters, coupled with the proximity of the stands to the pitch, makes for a cauldron of noise that even the most experienced of players can be fazed by. “One of the biggest things I miss about not playing any more is the feeling you get before the game has even kicked off. Running down that tunnel – I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it – it is the most incredible feeling ever. The noise, whether the roof is open or not, is unbelievable.”
Whether you’re soaking up the support as a Welshman or being bombarded with boisterous banter as an opponent, you can’t help being affected by that atmosphere. “The ability to drown out that noise has to be learned,” says Williams. “The older and more experienced you get, you learn to deal with that but it’s not easy. The world class players are the ones who know they’re going into a tough environment but can forget about that and concentrate on doing their job. I have definitely played in stadia where the crowds have had the better of me. That said, [as a Welsh player], even if you’re up against it, or a score down, etc, the crowd never fails to get you up again and keep you going.”
The noise doesn’t just come from the crowd, as the players attempt to get in each other’s heads during the match. Williams’ own recollections of the time-honoured tradition of ‘sledging’ are vivid. “I can remember one of my first games was against England – I played against Austin Healey and he didn’t shut up for 80mins! He was telling me, ‘You’re much slower than I thought you were going to be.’ And he absolutely broke me mentally.”
But surely these old-fashioned mind-games don’t have a place in the modern game? “I can assure you they do,” claims Williams. “Take Alun Wyn Jones for example. He won’t shut up for 80 minutes, I can vouch for that. But he’s like that in training. So why would a match be any different? Farrell’s another one. And then there’s non-stop banter from the likes of Kyle Sinckler. It’s interesting in that it’s not all physical out there. You have to be a player that can take stick.”
Tactically, Wales have the option of bringing Leigh Halfpenny back into the squad, the fullback having returned to full training with the Scarlets following concussion. England have demonstrated an astute kicking game, and Halfpenny’s reintroduction could be perfectly timed. “Leigh could easily be involved in the game,” Williams claims, “and when it comes to positioning and not letting the ball hit the green stuff, he’s probably the best in the world. If a good thing can be taken from his injury it’s that he’s been able to carry on training, so his fitness isn’t going to be a problem. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he came in and slotted into that position because he’s good enough to do it.”
Kiwi-cum-Welshman Gareth Anscombe took on the flyhalf role in Round One but came off the bench against Italy to replace Dan Biggar. Neither boast particularly impressive kicking stats and Williams sees the advantage of having a kicker of Halfpenny’s metronomic standards in the squad. “Leigh can also provide the points, which we need in such an important game, when they’re on offer. That said, England have been one of the best disciplined teams in the Six Nations so those points aren’t going to come easily.”
Such is the importance of kicking in the modern game that someone of Halfpenny’s ability under the high ball can make a huge difference. “The good thing about England’s game,” Williams points out, “is how hard their kick chase is; they always kick to compete. Everyone chases at 100 miles an hour and they have some tall lads that are good in the air, so there’s always a 50/50 challenge. Whereas Wales’ kicking game has been quite poor. Opposition wingers and fullbacks have been able to catch the ball cleanly and clear the defences. That’s where Leigh can make a difference, though England will know that he reads the game very well and will make it tough for him.”
Among those pressuring opposition defences with his kick chase for England is Jonny May, whose imperious recent form has seen him move to seventh on England’s all-time list of try scorers, including a hat-trick against France. Williams praises the Leicester winger’s talents. “May has gas and there’s really no substitute for that. He has been performing week-in, week-out for club and has the ability to score world-class tries. There’s nothing better than a player with confidence, who is scoring tries and I’m sure he’ll go on to score a few more – but hopefully not against Wales!”
Shane Williams is taking part in the LMAX Exchange Everest Rugby Challenge. Visit everestrugby.org.uk to see how you can take part or fundraise. Donations can be made via the same link or by texting EVEREST5 to 70085 to donate £5.
By James Gwinnett