Wales v England in the Six Nations: 'A sporting occasion like no other'
|Six Nations: Wales v England|
|Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff Date: Saturday, 23 February Kick-off: 16:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC One, S4C, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru & BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app, plus live text commentary.|
You can be in many places in London and not know there are 80,000 people at a match in Twickenham. Swerve the Gare du Nord and Paris on a Six Nations weekend can pass as Paris always does. Murrayfield is a 45-minute ramble from the centre of Edinburgh, the Aviva Stadium tucked in Dublin's well-heeled south-eastern suburbs.
Cardiff? The only way you can miss the Principality Stadium is if you are leaving town without a backward glance. You can be oblivious to the rugby only if you lock yourself away for the weekend and never once look out.
Most of Wales appears to drain into its capital on matchdays. A stadium in the guts of the city, a game still in the heart of the nation. All cities and sports have their own particular rhythms and charms but Cardiff when England come calling is like no other.
It is special because of its traditions and alive because it is not just ancient history. A rivalry that has stretched out across 138 years kicks on to this Saturday and drags two nations into its wake. Eighty minutes of rugby but a day around it that starts with big breakfasts and butterflies in the stomach and finishes only when you want it to.
Old friends, familiar routines, memories of matchdays gone before. Early trains out of Paddington, heading west with the optimistic English and day-trip diaspora, seats only if you are lucky, beers being passed round the carriage.
Traffic building on the M4, slow through the tunnel outside Newport, crawling along the A48 into town. Shorter hops from the west, 40 minutes from Neath station into Cardiff Central, an 11am sporting commute with cans in bags.
The city skyline has changed. The old brick tower of the Brains brewery by the station has gone, the grey walls of the prison dwarfed by new apartment blocks. Pile off the train and you still get taken out the long way round, back under the bridge and then up into town, stadium looming ahead of you, and the day kicks on again.
Wales v England is the conversation all week. Not the weather, or football, but a stroll around the cliches and talking points: can Gareth Anscombe control a game like Dan Biggar? Will England's kicking game be hoovered up by Liam Williams? Who will win the back-row battle?
The stadium is a magnet drawing them in from all corners. Strolling in from Roath to the north-west, scattering the last of the Saturday shoppers, coming along the Cowbridge Road from the west. A Cathedral Road pub crawl from the affluent ends of Pontcanna and Llandaff or a brisk walk across Bute Park. Maybe a few looseners down in the bay.
All paths lead to town. If you're young with a flat or house, mates stay over and mates of mates find space on the floor. If you don't have a ticket - well, most people don't. It's rugby but it's also an all-dayer and an excuse. It's why there can be queues to get into Walkabout on St Mary Street before noon and why Caroline Street will be awash shortly after.
If you want it civilised, it's pints in the Goat Major or the bar of the Holiday Inn on the corner of Castle Street. Elbow to elbow in the lobby of the Angel Hotel, where visiting teams used to stay back in the day, male voice choirs in song on the big staircase. If you want it messy you don't need to look hard.
It isn't always a fortress and there is not so much of the hatred that some remember. England have left victorious on three of their past four visits. The old narrative of little brother against big no longer carries so much weight when Wales have three Grand Slams in the past 14 years to England's one, when they have gone further in the past two World Cups, when the nation has a flourishing political and cultural self-confidence.
It isn't just about the booze but it floats along on it. The reason there is a craft IPA called Mikey Rayer is not just a tribute to the two tries the former Cardiff man scored as a replacement against Scotland in 1994 but the fact his name is local rhyming slang for an all-day session. There'll come a point later in the day when people will forget how coats work.
Much has stayed the same but much has changed too. Football is younger and cooler. Domestic rugby in Wales is a mess.
It is still a day when nothing else is planned. You don't accidentally book a wedding when Wales play England or find that you're going away. The connection between elite and community remains. You can still see internationals like Justin Tipuric coaching the juniors at his club side Trebanos on a Sunday morning, or spot hooker Ken Owens having a pint in Carmarthen.
The ones who resent rugby and the way it can preserve the old stereotypes - marching bands and Sloop John B, Max Boyce and anthropomorphic daffodils - are still defined by their opposition to it. No-one is neutral.
For the travelling English it is a day to feel like cartoon villains while also relishing being surrounded by people who share the same obsessions. There is always hope - England are chasing a record sixth consecutive Six Nations win in this fixture - and this year the confidence of thumping wins against Ireland and France.
You could argue the survivors of the 30-3 shellacking in 2013 carry the scars. But Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell have won in Cardiff since, and Manu Tuilagi is more about dishing out pain than wearing it.
Jonny May has won at the Principality, as have George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly, Courtney Lawes. England have scored almost twice as many tries in the championship this year as any other team, and they are yet to meet Italy. Eddie Jones has coached England four times against Wales and won every one.
When 74,500 people have piled into the Principality by 4.45pm on Saturday, that past will matter less than the present.
You listen to the choruses of Delilah rolling down the steep stands, wonder at a song that celebrates a misogynist murder and join in anyway. You hope the bloke next to you can carry all those pints without slopping them on your shoes. You feel the heat on your face from the pitch-side flame-throwers and you know you are at the centre of the rugby universe.
Rugby's greatest championship, the sport's consummate afternoon.