In 2008, Shane Williams was part of a Wales team that did what their compatriots had not managed for 20 years: beat England at Twickenham.
The hoodoo was banished – Wales had beaten the 2007 World Cup finalists at home, and went on to win two Six Nations Grand Slams. As Williams says, “I realised I couldn’t use Twickenham as an excuse any more.”
However, as the most anticipated match of the Rugby World Cup approaches, Twickenham has become a fortress once again. Unbeaten at home in the year leading up to the tournament, England coach Stuart Lancaster has underlined the importance of the Twickenham factor: “The fans create an unbelievable energy – they help the team, they carry them, and the best games at Twickenham have been influenced, without a doubt, by the fans.”
But what’s it really like for an opposing side to play at Twickenham? And is the home advantage really enough to carry England home?
For Williams, the difference was obvious before he even made it onto the pitch. “When you come into Twickenham itself there are all the cars with their boots up, everyone having their Pimm’s and lemonade, their barbecues and sandwiches.”
The good news for England’s World Cup opponents is that Twickenham’s car park will be used by the International Rugby Board during the tournament, so England fans will be denied their traditional pre-match pastime. But for away sides the atmosphere around the ground will still be alien.
Williams has made enough trips to London to know not to judge English passion based on a genteel ritual. “We used to drive through the car park and think, ‘God, it’s a little bit different to Cardiff isn’t it?’ Certainly the English are posher than the Welsh,” he says.
“When we drove through Cardiff to the stadium, everyone’s drinking Strongbow at one in the afternoon and already halfway there. Then when you go to Twickenham it’s more sophisticated, but still intimidating. It reminds you you’re away from home, out of your comfort zone.
“Then you arrive at the stadium itself and it’s absolute bedlam from start to finish. They get Sweet Chariot going, and once they’re on top it’s very difficult.”
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Although no one can quite agree on why a spiritual with roots in the African slave trade has become the anthem of English rugby, there’s no denying its power when sung by the best part of 82,000 fans.
“You can always hear it,” Williams says. “Sometimes Twickenham gets very vocal when England’s doing well, Sweet Chariot rings out, and then you know you’re really up against it. But what I used to enjoy was when they started singing Sweet Chariot when England were under pressure.
You knew the crowd were trying to pick up their side, get them on the front foot. “That happened in 2008: when we had the ascendency in the second half the crowd got vocal. They started singing, but we thought, ‘Hey, we’ve got these guys here. The crowd can see it. Let’s kick this home.’”
Wales need that spirit again if they want to upset the hosts. England have not lost to a northern hemisphere side at Twickenham for three years. The last side to beat them at home? Wales.
But Williams is cautious: “It’s in their back garden, it’s there’s for the taking. Lancaster has bigged up the Twickenham factor, and rightly so: he needs his boys motivated, he needs them to realise they are playing at home, they have family and friends in the crowd – don’t let them down.
Sometimes it’s things like that that get you through the tough games. It’s not all about physical fitness and tempo, sometimes it’s about the emotions, the top two inches. Lancaster is trying to instil that home spirit.”
HQ, Twickers, Fortress Twickenham – this stadium has had many nicknames down the years. Now it has another: the House of Lancaster. It’s been well earned.
Friday 25 September
Pool C: Argentina v Georgia, 4:45pm ITV4
Saturday 26 September
Pool D: Italy v Canada, 2:30pm ITV
Pool B: South Africa v Samoa, 4:45pm ITV
Pool A: England v Wales, 8pm, ITV