Six Nations
The changing 'hate' of Wales-England
Tom Hamilton
February 5, 2015

Friday marks the 126th match between England and Wales and much of the talk leading up to the game inevitably focuses around the rivalry between the two camps. But when you look back at the first meeting in 1881 there was no talk of rambunctiousness or cross-border animosity. A report from The Times' started by mentioning "a large number of persons assembled on the ground of Mr Richardson's field". England won by eight goals to nil with the immediacy of the game preventing Wales from fielding their strongest side. The report praised the English while giving an honourable mention to Wales and Pontypridd's Edward Treherne. It was all very civil.

England and Wales contest a lineout in 1905
England and Wales lock horns in 1905 © PA Photos

Nearly a century on and come 1977, the match was being used as an outlet for political frustration. Captain on the day of Wales' match against England at the Arms Park was Phil Bennett. The normally quietly-spoken fly-half drummed up every bit of class-based and racially divisive motivation at his disposal to turn his team into snarling beasts hunting for English blood ahead of their meeting.

"Look at what these bastards have done to Wales. They've taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they ever given us? Absolutely nothing. We've been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English. And that's who you're playing this afternoon, the English."

Wales won 14-9 with Gareth Edwards and JPR Williams - an individual who notched 11 wins in 11 attempts against England - scoring. Conversely, it was England's best performance in Cardiff for a decade.

Come 1980, with Margaret Thatcher's industrial policies causing all sorts of controversy and anger either side of the Severn Bridge, England's match against Wales at Twickenham descended into political allegory. Wales' Paul Ringer was issued the first red card in the fixture for a late challenge on John Horton with others nursing battered and bruised bodies. England withstood the flurry of fists and bile and secured their first win over Wales in six years, thanks to a 9-8 triumph. Skipper on the day Bill Beaumont later described it as "a roughhouse game… that took the biscuit."

Wales' John Davies is issued his marching orders, Wales v England, February 18, 1995
John Davies is sent-off in 1995 © Getty Images

After that violent nadir, the fixture had to wait until 1995 for another flash of the red card with prop John Davies dispatched for kicking England's Ben Clarke and as the sport entered the new millennium, it was England who were in the ascendancy - though not without Wales putting the most monumental pin into their Grand Slam balloon in 1999 when Scott Gibbs scored that famous late try at - of all places - Wembley. "It's a confrontation, it's history" was Dean Richards' assessment of the state of play at that time.

Although the patriotic tensions bubbled away nicely over the next few years - the sight of the uber-tanned Gavin Henson upending England's 18-year-old debutant Mathew Tait in 2005 secured his place in Welsh folklore - there were few flashpoints on the field but there was still the odd drop of animosity off it. Martin Johnson recalls the team bus being head-butted by one particularly irate Welsh fan in 2001 and prop Jason Leonard, who is second only to Rory Underwood in appearances for England in this fixture on 13, witnessed the Welsh passion first-hand on journeys into Cardiff on match day.

"There's such a history between the sides and England v Wales is a game that excites the players," Leonard told ESPN. "There was always a huge rivalry but with professionalism it all changed as the English guys were playing for Welsh clubs and vice versa. Everybody knows the rivalry is still there but the players know each other. Would I say it is a bitter rivalry? Not really, I'd say it is professional.

"I remember going through Cardiff and you're watching your fans and their fans. The players are listening to those booing them and those cheering them. You're too focused on the game itself; it doesn't really play a huge part in motivating you. You're thinking about your game and how you can help the team win the match."

Wales' Gavin Henson tackles England's Mathew Tait, Wales v England, Six Nations Championship, Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, February 5, 2005
Gavin Henson upends Mathew Tait in 2005 © Getty Images

From the Welsh point of view, Ryan Jones has enjoyed three Grand Slams in the last decade and he has fond memories of the match-up between the famous foes but at the turn of the millennium there was no sense of real animosity between the two sides.

"I have nothing but fond memories of those fixtures," Jones told ESPN. "Historically they evoke an emotion but let's be realistic: is it something we talk about day-to-day in the preparation? No it isn't. It doesn't motivate us, it's just the fact it's our closest rival. There are the bragging rights in the pub and that's what rivalries are all about."

In recent years there have been few flashpoints with the increasing frequency of players moving away from their home clubs seeing camaraderie forged between the Welsh and England camps. So when George North uttered the hate word in 2013, it led to mouths being clasped on both sides of the Severn Bridge. He said two years ago: "Every time we play England with the long, long rivalry it seems everyone wants to see a bloodbath. In rugby terms everyone likes to hate the English." A year on and Jack Nowell re-stoked the fires ahead of their meeting in Twickenham saying: "You're going to play against a team who hate you and want to do anything to beat you in the game."

Both statements led to quick quashing from both within the camp and the opposition's, perhaps reflective of the more PR and media-savvy world that exists in modern rugby. North had revised his thoughts considerably by last year's meeting. "In recent years people have thrown the hate word around but for us it's a big game, there's a great rivalry but it's a challenge all the boys are looking forward to."

Leading out Wales on Friday will be Sam Warburton. When asked about where he feels the rivalry sits on the hate-o-meter, his answer was diplomatic. "My dad's English so I'll have to tread carefully. It seems every year the Welsh public love the England game and this is the best fixture to open up to for the championship. The player's preparation doesn't change but the hype does, just from walking around the local supermarkets. It all ramps up on England-Wales games."

His England counterpart Chris Robshaw toed a similar party line. "It's what it always has been, there's a rivalry between all the countries. That's the beauty of this tournament whether it's the rivalry between family members or nations. It's a brilliant part of sport and it'll help build the excitement and anticipation around this game."

Wales celebrate Alex Cuthbert's second score, Wales v England, Six Nations, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, March 16, 2013
Wales were the team celebrating in 2013 © Getty Images

The rivalry is still there but on the field it seems to be more rugby-motivated than owing to outside influences. It is more players vying for on-field supremacy rather than taking notice of the circus off it.

The supporters in Cardiff on Friday will be stung by a pang of nostalgia and national pride which will overflow onto Westgate Street in the aftermath of the game but for the players they will be focusing on a common goal - starting the Six Nations on a winning note - and their own personal motivation. Those who were in England colours the last time they were in Cardiff will hope to right the wrongs of the 30-3 hammering. Warburton labels that a "one-off freak fixture" and they will be focused on putting down a marker both in the championship and in a World Cup year while hoping to gain revenge for last year's loss at Twickenham.

Warburton is no stranger to the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium. Some in the England camp will be getting a taster for the first time to the extent they have been practising with speakers on full blast in an attempt to replicate the din in which they will have to communicate come Friday. Friday's game will likely be a seminal moment in some players' careers. For someone like England lock Dave Attwood, who is playing in the stadium for the first time, there are no thoughts of hate but instead pure excitement and a hope to add to the legacy of the most ferocious of rivalries.

"I find it not desperately helpful to get absorbed in the sideshow. Obviously it's incredibly loud and passionate and every Welsh person you speak to for 30 years will talk about the outcome. Sometimes it comes across that English fans are a bit more blasé than the Welsh when it comes to supporting the national team but I think that balance has been a bit redressed in recent years. I certainly know English fans who are as passionate as any Welsh fans I've ever met. I'm sure we'll be well supported when we get over there.

"I'm unbelievably excited. They're going to come all guns blazing as they always do. I'm sure it's going to be a pretty ferocious Test match. I'm certainly looking forward to it. I think it's going to be a great craic."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

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