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The World Cup countdown starts here. But Harri Morgan says it would be wrong to read too much into the numbers at this stage. England v Wales in August is unlikely to be too reliable an indicator of what is about to come in Japan.
The humble pre season fixture. The first opportunity for those in the stand to catch a glimpse of a new signing or an academy product, whilst those on the pitch, sweat and gasp as they seek to mine a commodity, which no matter the humidity or altitude, cannot be manufactured on the training paddock – match fitness.
As fans, we are well-versed, and know that results, and to a certain extent the performance witnessed during fixtures of this nature, shouldn’t be used as a barometer for future success.
But it’s amazing what a bit of sun, swing ball and a hot dog can do to wipe away our memories and pragmatism in favour of blind optimism.
Before you know it, you’re convinced that a victory over your local rivals in the final of the Castrol Cup, Texas’ premier Soccer showdown, renders all hope justified.
Plenty of football fans will be waking up this morning ready to attest to their detest at being lead on by another ‘promising’ pre-season.
With that in mind, what does success look like for both England and Wales as they drag themselves away from their scientifically gruelling, sweat-infested training camps and on to the Twickenham turf to register their first practice laps in the lead up to opening their World Cup campaigns at the back end of next month?
For those who part with their pounds, to ensure that the fixture is a commercial boost to the unions, as much as it is to the players’ lung capacity, there will no doubt be a desire to witness their team notch up a victory. It is England v Wales, after all.
The selection of 13 from the 15 that started the final fixture of Wales’ Grand Slam winning Six Nations campaign is evidence enough of Warren Gatland’s desire to protect his side’s winning streak that currently sits 14 matches deep.
For Gatland it is probably less about getting the numbers up and more continuity of the feel-good factor generated from a successful spring.
That said, at some point in the next four weeks we might expect Gatland’s policy of protectionism to shift away from a streak, if it still exists, and on to the welfare of his players.
After 2015, the Welsh management will understand better than most that the downside risk of time in the middle is a build-up of bodies in the sick bay.
There might be a perfect balance between the hunt for match fitness, and wrapping your assets in cotton wool, but until we find it there will be plenty of crossed fingers in the lead up to Japan.
Conversely, Eddie Jones’ England team has an experimental flavour with a hint of first choice.
It’s very much a swig in the last chance saloon for any of those on the periphery of Jones’ thinking, with the England squad set to be announced on Monday afternoon.
Ruaridh McConnochie was due to rewarded with a first cap after a gun first season with Bath. He would have been one of those rare Sevens internationals to get bumped up to full international status, but a hip injury has ruined that prospect.
Instead, Joe Cokanasiga takes his place on the wing and there have been other late changes to the back row for England, too.
The trio of Sam Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola would certainly have been one to watch.
It had a balance of graft and gumption that would have allowed Big Billy to go gangbusters. But Underhill has been ruled out, too, so Northampton flanker Lewis Ludlam steps up from the bench.
England’s other late switch is at centre when Henry Slade has a toe problem, meaning a recall for Jonathan Joseph.
Despite fans’ desire for bragging rights, and the natural tendency to draw quick a quick conclusion, the reality is that we should know better.
This afternoon’s fixture provides the outsider with an insight in to a bit-part of a meticulously planned process.
A project that at this stage will not be defined by binary milestones of W or L. Those days will come, and in the very near future, but for now anticipate insider reflection to be along the lines of, ’twas a good blow out’ or a ‘useful indicator of where we are’ – perhaps even the odd bite of food for thought.
This is the beginning. All roads lead East.
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