TOM BRADSHAW: Handling expectations holds key to Wales v England Six Nations showdown
At the start of February, Welsh rugby was staring into the abyss. Over the preceding two years, many of Wales’ star players had forgone the Land of their Fathers and instead chased the euro in France.
The Welsh regions were wrestling with a financial crisis every bit as intractable as the one facing George Osborne, and the halo being sported by the previously sanctified Sam Warburton was looking a little tarnished after a series of cloven-footed performances. Then, to cap it all, the national side got off to an abysmal start in the Six Nations, losing to Ireland at the Millennium Stadium.
That loss meant Wales – three-times Grand Slam winners in recent years – had chalked up an eight-match losing streak. And with Warren Gatland away on Lions duty, the prospect of a rapid turnaround in fortunes looked slim.
Many in the rugby world issued Doomsday warnings about the campaign ahead. Following the loss to Ireland, Wales had the prospect of three away matches before facing England – the slayers of the All Blacks – at home. Some muttered darkly about a wooden spoon. Heaven forbid, maybe even a whitewash.
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If a week is a long time in politics, then a month is positively a yawning chasm in rugby. Down-and-outs can become flavour of the month, and vice versa. And that’s what we’ve witnessed with Wales, who have pluckily picked up the pieces and assembled something resembling a championship-contending side.
The script has been well-crafted. Unbeaten England head over the Severn Bridge for Saturday’s Six Nations decider after a hesitant and guileless showing against Italy. For the Welsh, the occasion couldn’t really be tastier: the chance to snatch the championship in the final round, and at the same time to sabotage England’s Grand Slam hopes.
A lot has been made of how Wales will be favourites at the weekend because they will enjoy home advantage. I happen to think this is tosh.
Wales have forgotten how to win at home. They last won at the Millennium Stadium in June, when they beat the Barbarians. Since then, the home crowd has seen them lose four Autumn Internationals – including one game to Samoa – and then crash and burn in the opening half against Ireland.
Home advantage is a positive thing – but only if you’re comfortable and confident playing there. If you’ve suffered a terrible run of form in front of your home crowd, then it can be a nasty monkey to have on your back. Cardiff will expect on Saturday, and that pressure could turn out to be England’s 16th man.
But there is of course expectation on England’s shoulders too – expectation to finish off the Slam against an under-achieving Wales. And I suspect which side triumphs will depend just as much on how well the expectation is handled as on how the ball is handled.