Wales v England – What it means to those who have lived it

Wales v England rivalry cover
“We are the small fish in a big pond, so when we do beat our rivals and the big boys, it means that little bit more.”

“We are the small fish in a big pond, so when we do beat our rivals and the big boys, it means that little bit more.”

The thoughts of legendary winger Shane Williams may strike a chord with large swathes of Wales fans who grew up during the 90s and early 00s, when victories over England were few and far between.

As a player, Williams would have to wait five years before tasting victory in this fixture and was on the wrong end of a few heavy defeats before a momentous win in 2005.

Having been conditioned to despise the England rugby team from birth, any triumph over their nearest and dearest was one to savour.

“Growing up I felt I was meant to hate them,” said Williams.

“Obviously the history between the two nations is instilled in you as a youngster and when we played England there was far more passion and hatred than for any other team.

“When I was young, my mother would go on about the rivalry and how England were better than Wales and what it took to beat them.

“When I was a little bit older and down the pub, my mates would say ‘It’s England, we’re meant to hate these guys and we don’t beat them very often,’ so when it does happen, it’s a special occasion.”


Dig a little deeper into the history of this iconic fixture and England have not had it all their own way, especially when venturing behind enemy lines.

Peter Winterbottom was part of the England side which ended a 27-year wait for a win in Cardiff en route to a famous Grand Slam in 1991.

As is custom ahead of a clash between these two old foes, the column inches were dominated with previews and predictions but there was one story that caught the attention of the England players more than any other.

“I remember being at breakfast and Wade Dooley was reading the Telegraph,” said Winterbottom.

“He came across one headline which read: ‘19-year-old debutant fly-half says playing England is just another game.’ The interview was with Neil Jenkins.

“Wade said to us all, ‘We’ll see about that then, won’t we?’

“That wasn’t the right thing to say before your first game, that’s for sure!”

Behind-the-scenes documentaries profiling some of the world’s biggest sporting empires have become increasingly popular since Winterbottom’s playing days.

The ‘one-percenters’ that differentiate the very best from all the rest have captivated fans across all sports.

But as Winterbottom reveals, some of the ideas seen on screen in recent years are not as novel as you might think.

“Going down to Wales was a bit of a graveyard for England in those days,” recalled Winterbottom.

“The atmosphere was intimidating, it was always a very physical game.

“Prior to the matches there, we used to go and stay at the St Pierre Golf & Country Club in Chepstow. We had a nice training pitch there and no one really turned up apart from the press.

“We would have a nice time for a couple of days and then we’d drive into Cardiff. Suddenly it’s as if the whole world hates you.

“One year, Geoff Cooke decided to change things a little bit and we trained in Gloucester, before staying in the middle of Cardiff for a night or two before.

“When we trained in Gloucester, Geoff played the Welsh national anthem over the loudspeakers for the duration of the training session. He wanted us to be absolutely sick of it and for it to fire us up when we heard it before the game.

“Then of course we travelled to Cardiff and the lads were looking down at the street on the Friday before the game, and suddenly you start realising the enormity of the whole occasion and the passion the Welsh fans have for the game.”


With that monkey off their back after a 25-6 win in ’91, England enjoyed a hugely dominant spell over Wales, losing just two of the next 15 meetings.

One of those players whose career largely coincided with that brilliant run was Kyran Bracken, who after missing Wales’ epic win at Wembley in 1999 through injury, never finished on the losing side of this particular fixture.

But despite England’s supremacy, Bracken insists that he and his teammates were never short of respect for their fiercest foe.

“I always thought that Wales produced the best scrum-halves from around the world,” he said.

“I was lucky enough to play against Rob Jones and Rob Howley and I think everyone grew up watching the great Welsh teams of the 70s with Gareth Edwards and those sorts of players.

“As good as my record against them was, I always found going away from home quite hostile, not just in the stadium but outside too.

“We’d be training at different venues and stuff would be thrown at the bus, which we loved, because I suppose we loved to be hated.

“That transmitted to the players too, there was a feeling that they were going to die for the shirt, so you had to up your game.

“You get that in other stadiums but never quite like Wales with the passion they have for their country. They were ready to take your head off.

“Often when we played them we had a monster pack and tended to dominate them.

“I was in the studio when they took that Grand Slam away from us in 1999, so they’ve had a long history of causing us problems.”

With revenge on their minds a year later, England outgunned Wales in emphatic fashion, running out 46-12 winners at Twickenham.

That was Williams’ first Test outside Cardiff and an assignment made more difficult in the face of a particularly vehement opposite number.

“One of my toughest experiences on the rugby field was against Austin Healey, not because he physically broke me but because he mentally destroyed me by shouting at me all game and calling me all the names under the sun,” said Williams.

“So my career against England didn’t start particularly well!

“Ben Cohen did an interview after the game and when he was asked ‘how do you think Shane Williams played?’ he replied, ‘Shane who?’

“There were two Shane’s on the field – Howarth and Williams – so my interpretation was he didn’t know which one he was being asked about.

“The rest of the Welsh public were saying how dare he not know who Shane Williams is, which I found quite funny.

“I never took any offence and know for a fact that Ben didn’t mean to imply that. But the Welsh public certainly took it to heart.

“Even after what Austin did to me that day, I still enjoy his company. He’s quite quirky and we’ve had some great times.

“I think the only reason he ever comes to Wales is to wind up the Welsh, he loves getting booed.”


One of the Welsh replacements that day was Martyn Williams, who first tasted victory over England on his 50th cap on a memorable evening in 2005.

Gavin Henson’s late long-range penalty proved the difference, setting Wales on their way to a first Grand Slam since 1978.

“We had not beaten them since ’99, and I say we had not beaten them, we had been on the bad end of a few hammerings as well,” said Martyn Williams.

“It was such a tense affair, 11-9 in the end, and I think it was a turning point. As a group, that gave us the belief to go on and win the Grand Slam.

“I will never forget Gavin’s kick, it was just an incredible moment in Welsh rugby history.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that win probably kickstarted the next 17 years and what has been a really successful period for Wales.

“That win showed us that if we can beat England, we can beat anybody.

“To play against England at home for my 50th cap and to win the game in that manner, you couldn’t really ask for much more.”


Shane Williams believes the atmosphere that day was one of the best he ever experienced, as Wales ushered in arguably the most competitive era in the history of the rivalry.

England would feel the heat of the Cardiff cauldron once again in 2013, as Wales snatched the title from England’s grasp with a 30-3 victory under the roof.

Mike Phillips was at the centre of proceedings that day and did not miss the chance to rub English noses in the dirt.

“We’d obviously won the Championship and the next thing that was happening was the British & Irish Lions,” recalled Phillips.

“I remember the press gathering to talk to a few players from either side post-match.

“The Lions hadn’t been selected yet and as I came out of the door I said as loud as I could, ‘See you on the Lions Tour boys!’

“You end up playing with the England boys on the Lions and they were good mates, very respectful and it’s all good-natured really.”

You would have thought that a defeat of that significance would have brought the England dressing room to silence, but not so with James Haskell in town.

“That defeat was made all the more difficult by the fact it was my 50th cap and I came on late in the game, so I never had the chance to lead out my country,” said Haskell.

“Chris Robshaw then made me sing on my 50th cap because I made him sing on his very first cap.

“I was getting evils from the coaching staff but I thought I’d rather let the coaches down and keep the lads going and sang You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.

“Robbo had waited eight years for that and got me right in front of everyone. All the lads were loving it.”

At that time there was a strong fascination with the roof – which will be left open this year – and the impact it had on an already red-hot atmosphere.

Having witnessed first-hand the difference it could make, Haskell did not underplay its significance.

“The roof was closed for my debut and I’ve never heard a crowd so loud,” said Haskell.

“We were five metres away from the Welsh line and they were one try ahead and it felt like someone was pushing down on top of you, it was a palpable, noticeable thing.

“Twickenham doesn’t have the same consistent, intense impact and roaring and that can happen in Cardiff. It’s like nowhere else in the world.”


England were beaten mentally and physically that day so perhaps felt like they had a point to prove when they returned two years later.

The infamous tunnel stand-off of 2015 saw captains Sam Warburton and Chris Robshaw facing off, resulting in a delayed kick-off as both sides refused to budge and take to the field.

England went on to win 21-16 on what was Warburton’s 50th cap, and Haskell feels the exchange showed that England would refuse to be bullied as they had been in 2013.

“Wales wanted us to go out on the field, they wanted to put their laser show on, they wanted their moment and we said no, we’ll go out together,” said Haskell.

“Everyone was trying to bully Chris into going out. I love Robbo and he’s not the most aggressive bloke, he’s a good man who respects authority, but he smashed it that day and said, ‘no, we’re not going anywhere.’”


Players from both sides will be hoping to leave the mind games to one side ahead of their latest encounter.

Steve Borthwick’s charges are looking to end a six-year wait for a win in the Welsh capital, while Warren Gatland is searching for the first win of his second spell in charge.

So what better motivation for England, than the chance to write their name into the history books?

“For many of the England players this week, the opportunity to win in Cardiff is just massive,” said Winterbottom.

“It will be something they treasure for years to come. Not many people win in Cardiff do they?”