The Blog

An Englishman in Cardiff

When people ask me about this England v Wales game, one of the biggest challenges for the England players is understanding how much this means to the Welsh players, to the Welsh supporters and the country as a whole.

It has certainly started. The old ones being the best, as in 'where do we put our chariots', and 'will they fit', 'what the Dragon is going to do' etc etc. I love the humour and I love the passion of England V Wales and, let's be honest, the underlying edge that every now and again breaks through the surface!

My earliest memories of the Welsh was supporting them (shock horror). They were my rugby heroes when I was seven years old and why not - the likes of Edwards, Bennett, Gerald Davies, Fenwick, Gravell and, of course, JPR. They were brilliant, they won and I loved them. Getting to meet Phil Bennett, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, and I got to meet JPR at Newcastle airport half way through my England career and it was still a huge privilege.

However the crushing realisation not too long after this period that I really needed to support the guys in white was quite hard to accept but over a period of time I have become quite passionate about it!

My first game against Wales was dominated by Jonathan Davies' hairstyle, the greatest mullet of all time. I was obviously so impressed that I grew one soon after! So I had his hair, just not the skill, pace or accent.

My first trip to Cardiff ended in disaster in the rain, when Robert Jones's box kicks that pinned us to the touch lines and eventually destroyed us. I drove back from our hotel the next morning and, in a daze, stopped at a service station on the M4. Still in my defeat-induced daze I staggered into the shop bought whatever it was and failed to notice the commotion building outside.

Having paid, it suddenly became all too painfully apparent what the commotion was, a coach loads of Welsh fans had stopped off too and had now made a tunnel back to the exit for me! Very kind indeed. Although safe to say the sentiments they showered on me were not quite so kind.

I distinctly remember sitting in my car smouldering afterwards. Not only had we lost but I had just seen up close and personal what it meant to Welsh fans. And it made a lasting impression on me, one that I recalled in vivid technicolor two years later!

Having reviewed our defeat, and the 30+ years of defeats England had suffered in Cardiff, we decided that in 1991 we would do things just a little differently. We gave up staying at St Pierre Golf club (just over the bridge in Wales where you could still actually see England). Instead we decided to stay right in the centre of Cardiff, to make a statement to ourselves as much as anyone. We weren't going to hide out in St Pierre anymore, we were in town, we were here to hear your comments and this time we were here to win.

We also decided no coach to the ground. We could see the bloody stadium from our hotel, it was a few hundred yards away! So we walked in! I stayed very close to the likes of Wade Dooley and Dean Richards (not sure why). Even in a state of high focus, I still remember the looks on many faces as we walked past.

Towards the end of the game, my other vivid memory is of a granny in the first row of the stand waving an umbrella at me and informing me of her view on my parentage. Passion, she had. And plenty of it!

That night we had the beautiful moment of introducing Neil Jenkins to profiteroles. The dinner as always was a pretty dire drawn-out affair, although mine had started quite differently. Peter Winterbottom and I were late and, as we rushed through the Angel foyer, I said good evening to an elderly gentleman in his black tie. The next thing this gentleman grabbed me by my lapels, and shouted in my face

"Good evening, GOOD EVENING?! I tell you CARLING, in the 70s we would have given you a bloody good hiding!"

I looked over his shoulder (I was taller than him, which is unusual for me) and could see Winters killing himself laughing.

I managed to prise his fingers off me and made it into the reception, where all the players were. I was standing with Robert Jones when I saw the crazed gentleman again and pointed him out to Rob, asking: "Who the hell is that guy?"

"Oh, he is one of the ex-Presidents of the Welsh Rugby Union, Will". Enough said!

But the highlight of the evening was getting to see and hear the excitement on Neil's face when he realised there really was cream inside the profiteroles! He picked them up, looked at them from every angle, showed all his teammates, and most of the Welsh committee men, before the great line back at our table.

"I love these, but I really don't get it. How does the cream get in there, I really don't understand how the cream gets in there..."

The old Arms Park was a pretty magical place for me and I suppose there aren't many Englishmen who ever say that - and it is not really because we managed to win there. It was far more to do with the fact that so many of my rugby heroes had played there. The first time I walked into the changing rooms, I looked across at the Welsh dressing room and thought of all those great players and looked at the tunnel and tried to come to terms with the fact that I was going to run down the same tunnel that they did.

It probably seems slightly bizarre to many that I thought like that, but I would like to think all players are still the same kids when they first play, just in older bodies! And I certainly loved the history that went with being in Cardiff and the challenge also.

When I first stood for our anthem, you could not hear a word of it for the whistling and boos in the stadium. We are not popular visitors. Having walked out on the pitch before changing, you could not but help notice the saliva on your blazer when you took it off having come back. Being an Englishman in Cardiff was interesting; being an English rugby player in Cardiff was meant to guarantee defeat.

But there must be something in my makeup, because the more I sensed the emotion and the noise, the more I wanted to fight back, to win, to show that I was just as proud of my shirt as they were rightly proud of theirs. The guys I stood alongside in the team were special men, and I wanted us to be in the right frame of mind to say "**** you" to the crowd, to the Welsh players, to history! For the simple and only reason, that this was the team I played for, these were my team mates, this was a shirt I had always dreamt of wearing, and I hated losing in it, and I mean hated.

And when people ask me about this England v Wales game, one of the biggest challenges for the England players is understanding how much this means to the Welsh players, to the Welsh supporters and the country as a whole. To respect and accept that, and then to make sure that you are prepared for experiencing it as you walk out into the stadium. To find in yourself the desire and pride to feel the same for your shirt and your team, and to find the steel to look the players in the eye and make sure they realise that you are as intent on winning as they are... and showing them that in the first encounters of the match.

I certainly feel Wales are favourites, they have improved steadily all championship, they have some great match winners in the backs and they are in the best rugby viewing stadium in the world. So no mind games here, I would be surprised if they did not win. But, I was surprised England won in Dublin, delighted but surprised and I am just hoping that the same happens against Wales.