Wales vs England: Six Nations kicks off with the big one
England's World Cup mettle will be tested in front of 70,000 in the Millennium Stadium tonight
Every Six Nations tournament is to be relished but the 2015 championship has an added significance. For Europe's top teams it is the last chance to fine tune their squads ahead of September's World Cup. It's too late for any major upheavals but the next seven weeks will allow coaches to do the odd bit of tinkering. There'll be a spate of warm-up internationals in August but they'll lack the competitive intensity of the Six Nations, international rugby's oldest tournament, which kicks off tonight in Cardiff.
England are the visitors to Wales and the last time the men in white headed across the Severn they returned blooded and bruised, nursing the humiliation of a 30-3 thrashing. Memories of that 2013 defeat were partly erased last season when England beat Wales 29-18 at Twickenham but there's nothing quite like a trip to the Millennium Stadium to test an Englishman's mettle.
The 15 men who'll run out this evening to face the Welsh and a crowd of 70,000 are a mix of the raw and the grizzled. The likes of James Haskell, Dan Cole, Dylan Hartley and captain Chris Robshaw are seasoned internationals but alongside them in Cardiff will be a quartet of players in their early 20s – wing Anthony Watson, fly-half George Ford, second-row George Kruis and centre Jonathan Joseph – who between them have a mere 20 caps to their name.
In total this young England side has just 358 caps while Wales boast 648. That's a huge amount of experience and Wales' coach Warren Gatland – whose coaching CV is far longer than that of England's Stuart Lancaster – intends to exploit it. "We've got to use that to our advantage," he said. "On average we're a year older in the forwards and the backs, and significantly have more experience in terms of caps... [so] in the white-hot atmosphere of a full house at the Millennium Stadium, we've got to make it as uncomfortable as we can for them."
Fate has not been kind to England in recent weeks with a spate of injuries decimating the squad. Sidelined are some of their most valuable players, including centres Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt, lock Courtney Lawes and fly-half Owen Farrell.
Had Farrell been fit he would have sat on the bench understudying Ford who, at 21, is considered one of the most exciting fly-halves of his generation. He's got more natural talent than Farrell but has he the same ice-cold temperament? Wales will seek to expose any weaknesses in his mind, both on and off the field.
The build up to any Wales versus England encounter is invariably entertaining – rugby's answer to the slanging match at a boxing weigh-in – as the two old rivals look to gain a psychological edge. This week it's the Millennium Stadium's retractable roof that has been the focus of much of the pre-match banter, although the Wales coaching team have also accused England of "playing fast and loose with the rules".
Closed, the roof creates a more gladiatorial atmosphere, as was the case in 2013, but open it feels less intimidating, at least that is England's view. Stuart Lancaster has rejected a Welsh request to close the roof, explaining: "It's going to be pretty noisy anyway and it's at night so it will still be dark overhead."
England have trained for part of this week alongside a set of giant speakers blasting out Welsh hymns. "All it is," Lancaster told reporters, "is trying to replicate for the players who have not been there before examples of the type of sound and how it reverberates around the [Millennium] stadium."
Wales, meanwhile, have been looking on in amusement. They're confident, cocky even, and as one local paper declared on Thursday: "England seem to be running scared... so sing and cheer EVEN louder than you have done before."