It’s the box office game of the weekend, and it’s only now that I’m retired from England that I fully appreciate the enormity of it all. Before, I would have turned my phone off and not read the news, because that’s what I needed to do get myself ready to play. Now, being able to take in all the hype around the game at Twickenham on Saturday is exciting me.
To beat Wales at Twickenham is awesome, but beating them away is even better. That’s just how it is, and that’s how Wales will feel too about us. It’s a game that can do strange things to people. For example, that 2013 match in Cardiff haunted our then head coach Stuart Lancaster for two years - it had cost England the Grand Slam, after all. So when we went there and won in the opening round of the 2015 Championship, there he was jumping up and giving people high-fives, which isn’t Lanny at all.
But if you mentioned England v Wales at Twickenham in 2015, that’s a different story. That one still hurts. Eight or nine times out of ten, you’d say we win that World Cup pool game in our own backyard. We turned down three points and went for a lineout in the corner late on, and next thing you know Wales have whizzed up the field and scored under our posts. I still feel sorry for Lanny because he did such a brilliant job with us as a young group, laying the foundations for a team that Eddie Jones inherited which went on to be successful. That day in 2015 epitomised Wales as a team that don’t go away, which they showed once more against Scotland on Saturday.
I had mixed feelings about England’s win in Rome. There were some teething issues with the new defensive system, which is natural when you introduce that to a new group. Those are totally within England’s control to fix though, and they weren’t down to any individual error. There were lots of good things to be pleased about for us too. A big part of Steve Borthwick’s game plan is contestable kicks. Elliot Daly must have won at least three back in the first half, and these are the sorts of things people don’t notice. When teams defend a box kick, they create a three- or four-person defensive chain (usually called a ‘glove’ or a ‘net’) but Elliot got around Italy’s well which was huge. On the opposite wing, Tommy Freeman looked dangerous - fast, sharp and physical.
What those two Italy tries in the first half did do was galvanise the home team. It can be hard being an England player sometimes because - quite rightly - there is so much expectation on you to perform well. If they didn’t beat Italy by 40 points then it wasn’t going to be good enough. In a way, it will be beneficial for England to sit with that frustration for a week. They’ll be pleased to have won, but they won’t be buzzing. That’ll help us getting back to Twickenham this weekend against Wales. You use that frustration to get better.
Although only one team is heading to Twickenham with a win this weekend, Wales will have similar levels of motivation. They’re sat on a loss and, truthfully, I’d rather they were coming here off the back of a win. That sums up why it’s so hard to be a top team that wins week in, week out: coming up against a team that’s fuelled by an emotional reaction to a loss the week before is hard. It still surprises me how significant a factor that is. You see it in the Gallagher Premiership all the time. Teams will come out full throttle when their backs are against the wall. And all this is added to the eternal motivation any Wales team has when they’re facing England.
I first experienced that Welsh passion for facing the English when I played grassroots rugby for Wootton Bassett. The Welsh junior clubs we’d tour against were full of tough kids and we got absolutely battered. I’m not sure if it was the age group in England or just the way we were coached, but we weren’t allowed to do hand-offs. We had to carry the ball in both hands. So here we are playing a team in the south Wales valleys and they’re dishing out these monstrous hand-offs! Welsh teams are just twice as tough when they’re playing the English.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the Green Goblin himself, Willem Dafoe, in the crowd during the Wales v Scotland game. When I was with England, we’d have famous people come into the changing room all the time - royalty, film stars - and I’d put my front on and be polite, but I wasn’t in the moment, taking selfies and thinking ‘this is great!’ Win, lose or draw, my head would still be in the game, lost in thoughts about what we could have done better.
The only time I got a buzz from something like that was before the 2019 World Cup Final. We got some good video messages, and I recall Ellis Genge got Mike Tyson to do one for us. But the one that really got me going was the one from Paul Anderson, who plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders. I’m a big fan of that show, and he gave this rousing message down the camera in full Brummie accent. It really took me aback.
England have spoken about protecting their newly-capped wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso ahead of Saturday. That he’s from Cardiff adds to the whole intrigue of this huge game. The situation reminds me a bit of another wing, my old mate Alex Cuthbert, who went the other way. We were at Hartpury College together, where Cuthy was a pentathlete - so he would do swimming, fencing, show jumping, shooting and running. He was a hell of an athlete but he was stick thin, and he’d be the first to admit he wasn’t a great rugby player back then.
Anyway, fast forward two years and he’s now this juggernaut for Wales, running rings around England to win the Championship and scoring in a Lions Test in Australia in 2013. We played our first game against each other in 2014 at Twickenham, and after the match we met up to swap shirts and all of sudden he’s speaking in a full Welsh accent. This is a guy who’s born and raised in Gloucestershire!
Immanuel will be fine though, and whatever accent he’s got will add to the show. He’s been exciting to watch for Exeter, and full credit to the club for the way they play, which has brought out the best in him. There must be lots of other good wingers in the league who we don’t see because of the way their team plays. He will have learnt so much during his time in the England camp and he’s going to light it up for England at some point. I’m glad we’ve locked him in.
Jonny May is the second-highest try-scorer for England in the Guinness Men’s Six Nations (14), and second on England’s all-time try-scoring list (36).