Wales take on England at Twickenham on Saturday and recent history will inform bookmakers this should be a home win. But Graham Thomas argues the mood and demeanour of the coaches might mean momentum is travelling in the other direction.
In many ways, Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones have reflected the mood of their respective teams this week, with contrasting performances before England host Wales.
Six months ago Gatland looked as if he’d had enough of coaching Wales. Though he spoke about his excitement at taking a team he had been in charge of for a decade through to the 2019 World Cup, he sounded like a man renewing his wedding vows when his heart wasn’t really in it.
His eyes betrayed a weariness, a physical and mental fatigue following an arduous summer with the Lions in New Zealand. He was being assailed by pundits and public for a playing style that was outmoded and incapable of challenging the best and Japan 2019 must have seemed a long time ahead. He looked exhausted. If there was an escape clause in his contract, you felt he might have been examining the small print.
Then, Gatland went back home to New Zealand for his annual winter break where some kind of renewal must have occurred. Returning for the Six Nations, he looked leaner and tanned. There was a sharpness in his eye, and a briskness in his step. Even his grey beard looked updated and when he revealed he had told the players they would “batter” Scotland it was hard to disbelieve him.
On Tuesday, after naming an unchanged team to go to Twickenham, Gatland was relaxed in his press conference. He arrived with no fixed agenda and – like his team – seemed content to play whatever was in front of him. A few hopeful questions about Eddie Jones were sent his way and he dealt with them in the way he always used to when he feels confident in his team – relaxed and off-the-cuff, but with just enough edge in the answers to make them a little difficult to swallow for those on the receiving end. It was classic Gatland.
It contrasted with Jones, who resembled his England team. They had thumped Italy in their opening game, but it was more structured, more mechanical than Wales against the Scots.
Jones had a veneer of calm and was as slick and polished as always. But under the surface he resembled a man trying to recall his checklist, like his backline trying to get into position to run those rehearsed loop moves off a line-out.
“Try to unsettle their rookie half-back. Tick. Get under their captain’s skin with spurious outrage. Tick. Remind our fans to make some noise. Tick.”
Jones claimed Alun Wyn Jones’ behaviour in trying to prevent Scotland from taking a conversion was “contrived”. This, from someone who had waited five days until suddenly announcing he was making an official complaint to World Rugby.
Of course, none of this has any quantifiable effect on the outcome of the game. If Patchell has a stinker and falls apart, will it really be down to Jones’ mind games? Or will it have more to do with the punishing line speed England offer in defence scrambling his powers of judgement and making his hands jittery.
If Patchell has another stormer, does that mean Jones’ attack backfired and was directly responsible? Or will it mean England were too busy trying to counter the effectiveness of Josh Navidi at the breakdown to have time to go after the Wales No.10?
Searching for clues in the pre-match babble is like looking for signs of doom or glory in the weather. They can have an effect, but they don’t rule out all the other effects.
The most the pre-match debate can do is point to mood and atmosphere. All coaches try to impose their own reality. Gatland claimed England will have a “massive” pack. They don’t. Jones said Wales were underdogs against Scotland. They weren’t.
But Wales’ mood – for the first time in a long time – looks self-assured, progressive and confident. It echoes the self-belief of the 10 Scarlets who have grown in all those areas throughout the season.
England seem a little less certain. Some of the sheen that was there in the autumn, when they hammered Australia, is not quite there now following that mixed performance in Rome. A team that loudly claims it aims to be No.1 in the world next year, looks a little too anxious about a scrap in their own backyard.
Wales have not beaten England since the 2015 World Cup and in the two years since Jones took charge they are yet to lose at Twickenham. Those are the hard realities, whatever the omens.
But 10 years ago, a fresh-faced Gatland, with a twinkle in his eye, picked a team dominated by one region, and came away with 26-19 victory. The mood music was composed by the visiting coach and it might be again.