England return for the first time to the scene of one of their most chastening defeats of recent years, when they kick off the 2015 Six Nations at the Millennium Stadium against Wales on Friday. Two years ago, England were thrashed 30-3 in Cardiff as Wales secured a second successive Six Nations title. The result this time around could go a long way to deciding the fates of both teams in this year’s Championship, but also provides an opportunity to lay down a marker ahead of what looks set to be a vital encounter at the 2015 World Cup.
England can be grateful that the heavyweight matchup this September, in a Pool A that also includes Australia, will come in the far more comforting surrounds of Twickenham. Friday will present a very different challenge. And it is telling that much of the buildup to the contest has been dominated by talk of the intimidating atmosphere inside the Millennium Stadium and England’s preparations to try and mitigate its influence on events on the field.
Over 70,000 are expected to be in attendance and Wales coach Warren Gatland had called for the stadium roof to be closed, just as it was in their famous victory in 2013. But the closure requires both teams to agree and England coach Stuart Lancaster unsurprisingly declined. Yet Lancaster remains concerned about the atmosphere his side will encounter and has been preparing by blasting out hymns from loud speakers during his team’s training sessions.
“The atmosphere there means that it puts pressure on the players to scan and to see the picture because often you can’t hear the calls,” he said, reports The Guardian. “That’s the part of the experience the players gained two years ago: the sheer intensity of that game and the volume of noise and everything that came with it.
“A number of the players played in that match and we will definitely be better prepared second time around. Experience gives you that level of preparation and understanding.”
Lancaster’s concerns extend far beyond crowd noise, however. After finishing second behind Ireland in last year’s Six Nations, England’s preparations for the World Cup on home soil came under harsh scrutiny following five-straight defeats, four of them to New Zealand. And they now go into the Six Nations missing a host of players due to injury. Manu Tuilagi and Owen Farrell are just two of the regulars missing, meaning that Lancaster has selected a midfield of fly-half George Ford and centers Luthar Burrell and Jonathan Joseph with just 19 caps between them. Five of Lancaster’s starting 15 will be making their Six Nations debuts.
The contrast in the experience of their Welsh counterparts is vast, with Gatland coming into the Championship without any major injuries. Only two changes have been made to the side that beat South Africa 12-6 in Wales’ most recent outing, last November, including the return of star George North on the wing. Gatland, though, is cautious not to become preoccupied with the differing health of the two squads heading into a fixture that England won 29-18 at Twickenham in last year’s Six Nations.
“At the moment we're in the position of being pretty healthy [and] I feel sorry for England because we've been in that position, but you can't get caught-up in that,” Gatland said, according to BBC Sport. “There's so much speculation, so much chat about the England injuries and people making an issue of it [but] if we get caught up in that then our focus on the game has gone a little bit and .... we're going to struggle in the game.”
Kickoff time: 3:05 p.m. EST
TV channel: beIN Sports, via tape delay at 7 p.m.
Live stream: Premium Sports