The intent was set on Monday evening. England’s players arrived back from Rome on Sunday, returning to the lavish, lush environs of their Pennyhill Park training base for the first time this Six Nations after a first fortnight together on the continent. Typically, the first all-in meeting of a Test week would consist of constructing, embedding and instigating a tactical plan; this week’s get-together was all about attitude and emotion.
England return to Twickenham on Saturday for their first home fixture since last August, their nearest, noisiest neighbours coming charging up the M4 with nostrils aflare, firing up their central heaters and ready to roar in. This fiery, fervid fixture never fails to get the patriotic platelets pumping, a rivalry forged in the furnace of border battles centuries ago still burning strong. For a Welshman or woman, no rugby day matters more; England’s captain was keen to underline that that is true for the men in his ranks, too.
“I think a lot gets spoken about Wales and how much it means to them,” Jamie George explained. “A message from me is that we should never shy away from how much it means for us to play for England and what this fixture means to us.
“Something we have talked about a lot as a group is passion and not being afraid to show passion. First and foremost, the emotion in a game is important. It resonates with people because it allows you to show them how much it means to you to play for England.
“That’s why I love the Six Nations. I am expecting a big edge this weekend. We are very ready for that and very clear about how we want to take that edge away from Wales.”
The sad passing of Barry John last weekend has at least provided a chance to reminisce on bygone times of an era of Welsh dominance in this fixture and beyond. But clips of yesteryear have also brought into focus just how touch Wales have found it on their travels to southwest London since. Those marvellous Welsh sides of the 1970s and 1980s won six times at Twickenham in two decades; in the 35 years since, only thrice have celebratory Welsh limbs been thrown aloft at the home of English rugby. It is more than a decade since Wales won at the ground in fully-fledged Six Nations combat.
But England haven’t necessarily found the comforts of home that welcome over the last 18 months or so. Their last three home fixtures have featured, chronologically, a record defeat to France, a sending off of their captain and a first-ever defeat to Fiji – the boos that accompanied the denouement of each still echo in English heads. It’s no wonder that Warren Gatland is not intimidated by Twickenham.
England are out to change that. Refortifying their concrete citadel is seen as key to the development of the team into consistent winners, while the garrison must also be readied – talk of rebuilding the relationship with the home support has dominated much of the build-up to this campaign for George and his squad. As part of this drive to reconnect, their walk-in to the stadium will be slightly elongated in the hopes of interacting with more fans, while other changes will be made to the matchday experience to provide a better occasion.
“We’re very clear that our win rate at Twickenham hasn’t been good enough,” George admitted. “But ultimately, we’re looking at the here and now. We’ve got an opportunity to sort of put a marker down and make a statement about who we want to be, and what English rugby wants to be about going forward.
“The most intimidating atmospheres come off the back of the most intimidating teams. Some of our toughest games have been at the Aviva, away in Ireland. The identity of the Irish team is very clear for every fan to see. If we want to be the sort of team we want to be and create an intimidating environment at Twickenham, we have to be the sort of team we want to be – physical, confrontational, aggressive. We don’t want to replicate other places, we want to do things our way.”
England will benefit from a significantly more settled side than their visitors, Borthwick’s unchanged 15 standing in stark contrast to Gatland’s shuffled pack. Wales’s Janus-faced performance last weekend was a representation of a squad still firmly in the figuring-out stage, but the manner in which they attacked the second half to threaten one of the great Six Nations heists did hint at a young team with little to lose. For years, England would have known precisely the sort of side that Gatland would be bringing to Twickenham; this Welsh unit feels entirely more capricious, particularly with Ioan Lloyd, princely if peculiar, at 10.
“At this stage in the cycle, immediately post a World Cup, there are changes within squads,” Borthwick said. “We tried elements last weekend that were different from the World Cup, and we will be different again this weekend as we try and build on what we have done. At this stage of a cycle, teams change tactically, technically, in personnel. That is always a challenge, which comes even more to players being adaptable on the pitch.”
Tactically the encounter fascinates but so often it is fire in the belly and ice in the veins that are crucial in contests like these. “The best weeks that I’ve had in preparation for Wales are when we’ve built up the emotion throughout the week,” England’s new captain stressed. “We’ve done that pretty well this week.”
Swords drawn, England and George await the Welsh dragon.
England v Wales kicks off at 4.45pm on Saturday 10 February, with coverage starting on ITV at 4pm