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Mind games and ploys all a part of neighbours' rivalry

By Jack de Menezes

The renewal of rugby's most heated rivalry, in the most volatile territory, and a potential Six Nations Grand Slam on the line.

They don't get much bigger or better than Wales v England in Cardiff, and with everything from Eddie Jones' unbeaten streak to British and Irish Lions places on the line, today's encounter at the Principality Stadium will prove the Northern Hemisphere's biggest game since the 2015 Rugby World Cup clash between these two sides.

Jones has prepared for the magnitude of the match by warning his side about the nastiness that awaits them across the River Severn. Be ready for the abuse, prepare for all kinds of distractions in the 24 hours before kick-off, and watch out for the waves of daffodils that will be thrown their way upon arrival in the city centre, he said.

But the truth is that for all the hostility on the pitch, rugby simply isn't that kind of sport, least of all in the stands and in the pubs that surround any given stadium come match day.

Despite the passion, the ferocity and the anger that can be felt when England land on Welsh soil, it's worth remembering that this is rugby union, the sport that prides itself on being a hooligan's game played by gentlemen, where opposition fans sit side by side in the stands and players share a beer together immediately after the full-time whistle.

This is not war. An iconic sporting event, yes, but to regard such an occasion on a similar level to the battle fields where lives are lost would be disrespectful. Jones knows this all too well, and he has worked hard this week to take the sting out of the enormity of the match. The winner will go on to challenge for the Grand Slam, the loser left to hope to pick up the pieces and somehow scrap their way to the Championship in an unlikely fashion.

"This is just another Test match," said Jones ahead of departing for Cardiff. "They're all big. They all count exactly the same. Every Test match is important and it's important for us as a team that we play with commitment, with ferocity and with desire because we have got so many supporters out there we want to show them that in every game."

It's certainly been an interesting week across the two camps. England have been keen to do the talking, to set the agenda, but when it came to the crunch they decided to stymie Wales in their efforts to close the roof on the Principality Stadium in the hope that the heated atmosphere dissipates into the Cardiff night air.

Wales on the other hand were happy to do their talking on the pitch, that was until captain Alun Wyn Jones fired back at the Red Rose to warn there will be "no escape" come kick-off. Fighting talk if ever there was any.

Jones has also focused on the tricks and skulduggery that may await his side, labelling the Welsh "cunning" and preparing his side for the "shenanigans" that English sides in the past have faced.

"It will depend on Wales and what happens in the lead-up to the game," Jones added, the mischievous smile back on his face. "There might be things we can't control which affects our preparation going into the game so we might not be able to start with a bang, we may have to adapt very quickly."

But that isn't a reflection of the state of the rivalry, that's simply professional sport. Gamesmanship dominates the lead-up to matches like this, with sportsmanship sure to follow afterwards. The little indiscretions that go on behind the scenes are steeped in history, especially when it comes to rugby union.

Would South Africa have won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, an iconic moment in the country's history, had the New Zealand team not mysteriously contracted an illness the night before the final?

Would England have triumphed in Dublin in 2003 had Martin Johnson not insisted his side remain on their half of the pitch, forcing President Mary McAleese to walk off the red carpet and muddy her feet?

"None of us are going to move, and if anyone does move, I'll kill them," were Johnson's famous words. Of course, he wouldn't have, but you get the idea.

Coping with these challenges is all part of the process. When England arrive in Cardiff, they will do so four years after one of their most harrowing experiences in the Six Nations.

With the Grand Slam on the line, England were thumped 30-3, blown away by the magnitude of the occasion and the raucous reception inside the Millennium Stadium.

Jones spoke this week of banishing those demons, those shadows in the corner. England went a long way to doing that two years ago by beating their old rivals 21-16, but defeat this evening would prove a major setback in the development of Jones' squad.

He has his own demons to conquer, anyway. Jones was sacked by Australia as head coach following a defeat in Wales in 2005.

"You are devastated", he said of losing his dream job, two years after taking the Wallabies to the Rugby World Cup final.

Will he remember that feeling when he walks out of the tunnel today?

"No, I don't sleep well enough to have shadows in the corner," he said. Come tonight, he might not sleep at all.

Belfast Telegraph


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