England: We are ready for big kick-off

Ross McLean
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George Ford is set to start for England at fly-half tonight
Millennium Stadium atmosphere will not intimidate us, insists assistant coach Mike Catt

ENGLAND assistant coach Mike Catt insists his side will not be overawed by the white-hot atmosphere likely to be generated as Wales bid to land an early blow in tonight’s Six Nations opener at the Millennium Stadium.

The Red Rose buckled during their last visit to Cardiff two years ago and capitulated to a record 30-3 loss under a closed Millennium Stadium roof as the dominant hosts mercilessly destroyed England’s championship and Grand Slam hopes.

Head coach Stuart Lancaster has attempted to ensure his charges are better prepared for a similar level of intensity this time around, insisting the roof remains open, contrary to the wishes of Wales counterpart Warren Gatland.

Lancaster has also instigated a week’s training with Welsh anthem Hymns and Arias blaring out of loudspeakers at their Pennyhill Park base in order to replicate the hostility of a game situation.

“I don’t think we will be fazed by the noise. Players, international players, thrive in intense atmospheres. That is why they play the game,” said Catt.

“Only six or seven of the players haven’t been to the Millennium Stadium and played in front of that sort of crowd. It’s going to be a big battle, hopefully we have prepared well enough to confront it.”

An inexperienced England froze under Welsh ferocity during that excruciating 2013 defeat and Lancaster has been mindful to include as many established players as possible in his matchday squad.

Four British and Irish Lions, props Dan Cole and Mako Vunipola, hooker Tom Youngs and flanker Tom Croft, have been recalled to the 23, while veteran forward Nick Easter is on the bench, although areas of inexperience remain.

Gatland has already declared his intention to target a new-look midfield of fly-half George Ford and untested centre pairing Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph, a trio with a combined tally of 19 international caps.

Flanker James Haskell was on the bench in 2013, taking the field to win his 50th cap, and while the Wasps skipper accepts the Millennium Stadium can be repressive, he believes England have the resilience to cope.

“It’s a very intimidating place to go, a very difficult place to get a win, a huge occasion,” said Haskell.

“In 2013 a lot of players hadn’t been down there and played. In rugby it’s about experience. Win or lose, you draw from those experiences.

“We went there with pretty inexperienced players who hadn’t dealt with that kind of situation before and maybe misjudged it. This time we’re going back with a lot more experience.

“It’s about recognising when you’re in a difficult situation and recalling what happened before.”

Catt also acknowledges the traumatic nature of their last visit to Wales but insists England are a different proposition and possess the credentials to avoid a similar fate.

“It won’t happen again because we are two years more experienced and the group of players have been in big cauldrons in New Zealand and South Africa,” added Catt. “That day hurt quite a lot. Every English person hurt that day, it wasn’t just the team.

“It was two years ago. Since then, as a team, we have been successful against Wales and we are excited. We are looking forward to it.”