- RFUtv previews England’s Grand Slam opportunity in Cardiff
- Lancaster, B. Youngs, Ashton, Wood, Launchbury, Barritt and Tuilagi offer thoughts
England have never won a Grand Slam in Wales; have not won a Grand Slam for 10 years; and have only won six Grand Slams since 1928. But as a man whose coaching philosophy is firmly rooted in process and detail, Stuart Lancaster believes while history provides a reference point, it will have no bearing on the outcome.
So what will make the difference between two teams who have each lost only one of their last nine RBS 6 Nations matches (England to Wales 19-12 in 2012 and Wales to Ireland 30-20 this season).
Unrelenting back row Tom Wood, who made a startling Test debut the last time England played a competitive match in Cardiff, and emerged with a 26-19 victory in 2011, believes applying balanced aggression to everything they do is the basis of success in this fixture.
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“It’s vital we stay calm in that environment but a big part of building this team has been aggression, particularly in defence and breakdown. We want that speed off the line, low tackle focus, blitzing rucks and applying a horizontal approach to the ruck to get low early and not give the likes of Tipuric or Warburton a shot at the ball.”
With a significant nod to the importance of the breakdown, Wales Head Coach Rob Howley has picked two out and out opensides in Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton, with bullocking No.8 Toby Faletau completing the loose trio.
To oppose them Lancaster has a new look back row with Tom Croft making a remarkable return to start on the blindside eleven months after a career threatening neck injury, alongside Wood at No.8 and captain Chris Robshaw.
Comfortable with the balance he has there, Lancaster is expecting a titanic battle: “They’ve got some big, hard ball carriers, playing in front of 80,000 people, there’s a lot of things going in their favour. It’s going to take an outstanding effort for us but we’ve done it before. There’s a quiet self-belief but we know we have to deal with the occasion.”
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Ever present during the 2013 RBS 6 Nations, lock Joe Launchbury has recovered from hyper-extending his elbow during the gritty victory over Italy at Twickenham. Only eight caps into his international career, Launchbury is one of 11 players in England’s match day 23 who have not played at the Millennium Stadium before, but far from cowering his 6’ 6” frame at the prospect, the unflappable 21-year-old is relishing the chance to stand tall in front of a feverish Welsh crowd.
“I’ve never been there myself and it’s very exciting to go to these new places. The guys say it is very loud, but we’ll play our game and try to silence them.
“Playing on the road anywhere in international rugby is difficult but we’ve shown over the last few years that we’re quite good at it. It’s a pitch, it’s got grass, it’s got posts on it, it’s the same everywhere.”
Wing Chris Ashton is one of a handful of players – only four in the starting line-up – who have been in this situation before, only to come unstuck in a Dublin maelstrom just one game away from a Grand Slam in 2011.
The Saracens man, who scored a stunning brace in Cardiff in 2011, senses a different mood in the camp this time: “We’ve worked so hard to get to this chance so it would be a shame to throw it away. We were in this situation in Ireland with an inexperienced side, but it just doesn’t have the same feeling in this squad.
“We need to get in there first 20 minutes, calm the crowd down and build some confidence in ourselves that we can do this.”
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The midfield is expected to be a key battleground , with Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi facing up to much vaunted Wales pair Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. The England duo, vastly different characters who share a voracious appetite for work on the rugby field, shared their thoughts on what a “dream” Grand Slam would mean to them personally.
Tuilagi, 21, has five tries in his last six England starts and said: “It would be amazing for me to win a Grand Slam. I remember when I was young watching the Six Nations back in Samoa, when I think back to them and now I’m playing in it, it would be a dream.”
Barritt, who has started all bar one of Lancaster’s 16 games at the helm, said: “It would be a dream come true. You can compare the Six Nations to anything, it is perhaps only second to a world cup.”