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England out to avenge painful Cardiff drubbing in 2013

February 4, 2015

Two years later, the scars from England’s painful last visit to Cardiff are still raw for Stuart Lancaster and his side.

“There was an incredible atmosphere that night, the like of which I had never experienced before,” England forwards coach Graham Rowntree recalled. “It was a chastening time. We didn’t see it coming.”

The record 30-3 drubbing by the Welsh in that 2013 Six Nations title decider under the roof at a raucous Millennium Stadium was the first real setback in Lancaster’s reign, and the team has been desperate to avenge it ever since.

That chance comes on Friday in a match that marks the start of the 2015 tournament.

England captain Chris Robshaw has put off shoulder surgery to ensure he’ll be there. To mimic the din that will likely be created inside one of the great stadiums in world rugby, England has dotted loudspeakers around its training pitch over the last two weeks, with noise blaring out during practice sessions.

“We will definitely be better prepared second time around,” Lancaster said.

Better prepared, maybe, but all of England’s careful planning is threatening to be undone by a lengthy list of injuries that gives Wales a clear edge heading into the game between two of rugby’s biggest rivals.

While Wales has selected a full-strength, injury-free team, Lancaster will be without his star center Manu Tuilagi, three leaders of his pack in flanker Tom Wood and locks Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, its best player in November in No. 8 Ben Morgan and his most reliable kicker in Owen Farrrell.

Wales coach Warren Gatland isn’t getting lulled into a false sense of security.

“The challenge for us is to make sure we don’t allow the injuries to become a distraction and people talk us up too much,” Gatland said. “England will be a strong side, whatever happens.”

With centers Brad Barritt and Kyle Eastmond joining Tuilagi on the sidelines, Jonathan Joseph and Luther Burrell will be the latest midfield combination in England’s problem area in recent years. Dan Cole has recovered from a foot problem, and replaces injured David Wilson for his first test appearance for almost year.

Nick Easter, who hasn’t played for England since the 2011 Rugby World Cup, will provide cover in the reserves for No. 8 Billy Vunipola and the locks. Danny Cipriani is backup for flyhalf George Ford, and is set for his first Six Nations appearance in six years.

Gatland said his selection was straightforward, although he put pressure on winger George North — one of the stars of Welsh rugby — by saying there was an expectation for him to perform because “we don’t think he has played that well in the Welsh jersey in the last few games.”

Liam Williams was regarded as unfortunate to be dropped to accommodate North’s return.

Both teams will be desperate to put down a marker, not just for the rest of the Six Nations but for this year’s World Cup. England hosts Wales at Twickenham on Sept. 26 in a group that also includes Australia.

Lancaster said Wednesday that England was likely to request that the roof on the Millennium Stadium remains open for the match. Gatland said he wanted it closed to create a more intense atmosphere and protect fans from the risk of rain.

Both sides must agree for the roof to be closed.

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Wales: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, George North, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb; Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Alun Wyn Jones, Jake Ball, Samson Lee, Richard Hibbard, Gethin Jenkins. Reserves: Scott Baldwin, Paul James, Aaron Jarvis, Luke Charteris, Justin Tipuric, Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland, Liam Williams.

England: Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Luther Burrell, Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw (captain), James Haskell, George Kruis, Dave Attwood, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler. Reserves: Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Kieran Brookes, Nick Easter, Tom Croft, Richard Wigglesworth, Danny Cipriani, Billy Twelvetrees.

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