England have been training to the sound of hymns booming overhead to prepare for the noise awaiting their inexperienced players at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow night.
Stuart Lancaster’s side will kick off World Cup year in one of the most intimidating atmospheres in global rugby tomorrow as the Six Nations gets underway with one of the biggest fixtures of the tournament.
It is the first of two huge encounters between Wales and England this year, with the second being a pool stage game at Twickenham in the World Cup in September.
Lancaster insists the outcome of tomorrow’s game in Cardiff will have no bearing on the subsequent World Cup meeting, with the magnitude of the Six Nations opener presenting a big enough challenge.
Two years ago England wilted in the white-hot atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium as their grand slam bid ended in a catastrophic 30-3 defeat.
There are only five survivors in a starting XV dwarfed in experience by their Welsh counterparts, with England’s staff attempting to replicate the atmosphere by piping hymn music into the loudspeakers at their Pennyhill Park training facility. “It’s just a way of trying to replicate for the players who have not been there examples of the type of sound and how it reverberates around the stadium,” said Lancaster.
“It also shows you how clear your communication has to be because often you can’t hear yourself due to the intensity of the occasion.
“It replicates that and gives the players a little chance to prepare during training.
“We haven’t done it all week because we don’t have the eardrums for that.”
The attention to detail at training supports Lancaster’s repeated insistence that England always learn from their defeats – of which there have been five in the last seven games.
“One of the bits of feedback we gave the players before the game two years ago was that the acoustics of the stadium are so loud that sometimes you can’t hear the communication on the field,” he said.
“Mike Catt kept repeatedly saying this and all the players nodded their heads and said, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’.
“Until they had actually experienced that they didn’t really know but afterwards they all came round and said, ‘you were right’.
“I didn’t want to leave it to chance this time around. It was only for 10 minutes but I wanted them to get the sense of what it feels like to play there.
“We’ve eight players who haven’t played in the Millennium Stadium before so it was preparation.”
The assault on the nerves from a raucous Welsh crowd was the primary lesson Lancaster and England have taken from that sobering defeat two years ago.
Having gained a modicum of revenge with a 29-18 win over Warren Gatland’s side at Twickenham in the 2014 Six Nations, Lancaster admits that what went right and wrong on their previous visit to the Millennium has not featured too greatly in the build-up to their return.
“Obviously we’ve gone back to it and talked about it, but we’ve probably talked as much about the game last year at Twickenham that we won,” said the former Leeds player and coach.
“And we’ve probably talked as much about the recent games where New Zealand beat Wales, the Wales win versus South Africa, and the narrow defeat they had against Australia.
“But clearly I wanted to emphasise the point about some of the lessons we needed to have learned from that game.
“Because, obviously, the environment, the atmosphere in Wales is fantastic, and we need to make sure the players are prepared for it.”
After tomorrow, England have eight games before they meet Wales again on the second weekend of the World Cup, long enough to ensure the Six Nations opener will have no relevance, believes Lancaster. “There’s a big gap between now and the World Cup and a lot of rugby to be played,” he said.
“I would say it’s less relevant at the moment, it’s all about the here and now. The World Cup will be different when we get to September because we’ll have had time in camp together.
“Players will be back from injury. I’m likening it to the Australia game we played in November.
“We played Australia in the last game and won, but that probably won’t have a bearing to what happens in September. That will be a completely different context.
“We’re at home in September, we’re away on Friday.
“It’s a game in itself. It’s the start of the Six Nations and it’s in Wales. That’s enough.”
Robshaw retained: Page 23.