Let’s set the scene: whoever wins today wins the title, right?
James Hook: Yeah. Wales have Italy at home in the last game, so victory at Twickenham should do the trick. If England win they’ll have a massive advantage in points difference going to France. And there’s no guarantee the French will win in Scotland, is there? England could wrap up the whole thing here and now.
There’ll be no shortage of atmosphere, then.
Ben Morgan: It’s a huge game. Everyone who plays against England always seems to get up for the contest even more than usual, so there’ll be plenty of feeling around this one. Especially in light of the way it went last year at the Millennium Stadium. The Welsh will still be pretty bitter about that and want to go hard in reimposing themselves on Twickenham in the Six Nations context.
Is there anything of the fear factor left for the Welsh on the old cabbage patch?
JH: I think we went 20 years winning only once, but there have been three victories at Twickenham in recent times, so there’s no fear now. The boys love going there every bit as much as the supporters. When we travel now, we travel in confidence.
Is the whole fear factor thing a myth, anyway? A media construct?
Billy Twelvetrees It’s fair to say the media overhype it, drum it up into something it isn’t. Some venues are more intimidating than others, but as professional players you enjoy the intimidating places more than the other kind. When we went to the Millennium Stadium last year for the first time since that heavy defeat on Grand Slam night in 2013, I just couldn’t wait to get out there. You have to remember that whatever pressure there is flying around, most of it is on the home team. I think both sides are confident going into Twickenham, but England will be the ones under the heat. I can see Wales fancying their chances.
Are Wales more confident than everyone else, anyway?
They know how to win, don’t they? I’m not sure their attacking rugby has been great in this tournament, but their defence has been phenomenal. They rely on it, as well as kicking well out of hand and at goal. I think England will be worried more about their defensive strength than their attack. Defence is the thing that gives Wales their belief.
We’ve already established that games against England bring out the best in everyone else, but what about this “hatred” business? Eddie Jones has used the H-word more than once and he’s hardly been here five minutes.
BM: I think there’s probably quite a bit in it. Speak to opponents after any match and they’ll tell you they focus more on England than any other team. Everyone wants to go out there and beat England.
Do you sense it yourself when you’re wearing the white shirt?
BM: Personally, I prepare exactly the same for every game: I don’t think, “I’m going to have to do extra here because of what they think of us.” But if you’re an England player you do tend to be told how much everyone hates you. When the Welsh and the Scots and the Irish lads come into the club and you get to be best mates with them, you naturally ask them what this “hatred” thing is all about. And they say: “Ah, it’s just what you do when you’re with your country. You just tell yourselves: “It’s the English.”
So, James… the truth of it, please. Do you still talk about Thatcher and the miners’ strike, or have you forgiven and forgotten?
JH: Talk about who?
BT: Are you really asking him about politics?
That was the thing, wasn’t it, back in the day? Phil Bennett’s famous team talk – look what these bastards are doing to our country and so on?
JH: I can’t say I think about it myself. Look, I loved playing against England and had some good times against them. The rivalry is there and you grow up with it: when you’re a boy, you’re told that you’re supposed to hate them, so you start out that way. But I don’t really see why: I’m here at Gloucester and all the blokes are great. If there’s something still there, it’s probably that Thatcher thing you’re on about.
What have you made of the Six Nations so far? There’s been plenty of criticism.
BM: The rugby probably hasn’t been the most attractive, but from an English point of view it’s gone all right. Speaking to a couple of the lads, they think there’s more to give. When things really click you’ll see some special rugby.
If there’s a problem spectacle-wise, what is it? Does the comparison with a southern hemisphere-dominated World Cup make this tournament look substandard?
BT: It’s just the northern hemisphere game, isn’t it? The Six Nations is always closely contested and fiercely competitive: look at England-Ireland, Wales-France… it’s about closing out games in really tight circumstances. Teams aren’t simply going to run on to the field and throw the ball around just for the sake of it, just to please people. It’s about winning, nothing else.
Didn’t the World Cup provide conclusive evidence of a gulf between north and south?
(Wales, utility back, 81 caps): Scored a full house – try, conversion, penalty, drop goal – against England in 2007 and ran in a brilliant individual try against them in 2010.
(England, No 8, 31 caps): The World Cup forward was raised in the West Country but made his first professional impact in Wales with the Scarlets.
(England, centre, 19 caps): The Gloucester captain started every game in the 2014 Six Nations after playing for the British & Irish Lions in Australia the previous summer.
BT: For six months of the year we play in quite difficult conditions – wet, heavy pitches and all the rest of it – so it’s no surprise that it’s what we do best, keeping it tight and grinding out the wins. You look at the Super 15 or Super 18 or however many it is now, and they’re all playing in dry conditions. It’s easier for them to put some pace and width on the ball, so it’s become a part of their DNA. How we win games up here is sometimes very different: we’re often talking 10-man rugby with a big defence and that’s what’s in our DNA. But on occasion, we can do other things, England-France last year being an obvious example.
JH: Billy mentions that England-France game, and on the same afternoon Wales went to Rome and put 60 points on Italy. The strongest teams in Europe can score tries and prove it when the circumstances are right, but the pressure to win the big prizes… I think the southern hemisphere teams are more familiar with that and they deal with it in a different way. Better than us, probably.
BT: I don’t think there’s a massive gulf at all. If you look at the World Cup, the Scots should have made the semi-final – speak to Greig Laidlaw any day after training here and he’ll tell you about it. Wales were a few minutes away from beating South Africa. It could easily have been another story. And if you look at the Premiership and the quality of the tries being scored every week, there’s some great rugby being played. I just think that, when push comes to shove, we fall back on how we know we can win games. The New Zealanders’ confidence is rooted in knowing how to win – they’re in the ultimate winning culture – but they don’t always play great rugby. There’s a lot of perception at work here.
Ben, you’re the forward here. What can we do about the scrums? I’m not blaming you personally, but the set piece is like watching paint dry.
BM: When the front-rowers are feeling done in, they need their two-and-a-half-minute rest.
Even if the game is only six minutes old?
BM: I think it’s difficult around the scrum. The front row is such a technical area, I don’t know a great deal about what goes on there – and I’m closer to it than most. The way the set-piece engagement is now, body position is everything. If someone finds himself slightly out of synch and can just slightly rock things to get a reset and put himself in a better place, he will. I think referees can probably be more severe from the start. I also think people could stay on their feet more than they do at the moment. I can honestly say that we work quite hard on that here – that we attempt to stay off the floor even if we’re going backwards. If there was more of that attitude and if the referees took a really firm grip and went for quick cards, teams would adapt fast because they don’t want to lose players to the bin.
Is all this a frustration for you artists in the back line?
BM: They enjoy the two-and-a-half-minute rest as much as everyone else.
BT: It’s part of the game, but it can be difficult at times. James might call a move off the scrum and I’m thinking: “Sweet, but let’s get the ball out of there first.”
JH: When you boil it down, a good scrum gives you a brilliant attacking platform. But there are times when you barely see the ball from the set piece. It’s reached the point where we hardly practise moves off scrums. We have a few in the repertoire but…
BM: I hear that, but the scrum is not something I’d like to see disappear. It’s a massive part of our game. If you have a pack establishing dominance in an area that involves such physical exertion, you’re sucking the life out of the opposition. Do that and you’re off playing rugby, aren’t you? It’s where all the little gaps come from, the little holes that people with the right skills can exploit.
Has anyone in particular caught your eye over the first three Six Nations rounds?
BM: Probably Gareth Davies, the Wales scrum-half. Since Rhys Webb got injured just before the World Cup, he’s really grown into the position. Under Rhys he was probably getting 10 minutes of rugby maximum. Now, he’s making real progress.
Is he as quick as he looks?
JH: He is. Absolute lightning.
BT: I’ve been impressed by the way George Ford and Owen Farrell have combined at 10 and 12 for England. They’ve given the team some go-forward, some width and some control. From an overall match perspective, I think they’ve made a very positive impact. And with Billy Vunipola playing as he is, they’re able to operate on the front foot.
What do you think of Vunipola, Ben? You were playing him off the park when you suffered that horrible injury at the start of last year.
BM: Ha! He’s flying, isn’t he? Flying high. As Billy said, it’s all about confidence. I think, with Eddie Jones coming in, some of the boys have loosened up a little bit maybe. Billy, in particular, has been outstanding.
Do you see some growth in England’s attacking game?
BM: I think the structure is broadly the same.
BT: I agree. You still have good players there, making good decisions. I think they’ve simplified things to a degree, but it still comes down to Ben Youngs, George and Owen making sound calls about when to go through people and when to go to the wide guys. They’re making inroads and it’s encouraging to watch. But in this game, we’re looking at two teams with very good defensive systems, so there’ll be a lot of kick pressure and a big emphasis on discipline around the ball. There’ll be some attacking threat from both teams in the opposition 22, but in that middle third of the field the fight for scraps of advantage will be huge. The tempo will shoot up if there’s a good attacking position in the red zone, but the battle elsewhere will be a defensive one.
James, a quick question on your non-specialist area, if I may: how are Wales so proficient at stopping driving line-outs when no one else can fathom it out?
There’s a lot of technical work goes into it, or so I’m told, but I think the main thing is the fear factor associated with protecting the Wales line. The ferocity Shaun Edwards brings to his work as defence coach… it’s crazy, really. No one wants to miss a tackle for fear of seeing their name up there on the whiteboard come Monday and being shot down in front of everyone else. The boys respect him, that’s for sure.
So who wins?
BM: Yeah, England.
JH: Aaah, I’m struggling here.
BT: What will be interesting is where people’s heads turn out to be. Wales won that World Cup game and it was huge for them, so by coming with largely the same team they’ll fear nothing. How will England be thinking in terms of that match last September?
BM: I think England will be massively up for it, precisely because of what happened at the World Cup. There are always hangovers when you’ve been beaten in one of these games: the motivation comes from the embarrassment of having lost and the way it sits with you. The guys involved last time will be desperate to put it right and the new players will respond to the “let’s sort this out” feeling in the air.
James, you’re still thinking…
JH (through gritted teeth): I do think England will nick it, because they have people who can unlock a defence and create stuff. It will be tight, really tight, and it will come down to the smallest margins. But I see England sneaking it. Just.
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