WALES v ENGLAND PREVIEW: Wales look to complete recovery mission in big Millennium Stadium showdown
IMAGINE being a fortune teller who tried to suggest on February 3 that Wales would be involved in a Six Nations title decider with England around six weeks later.
"What else are you seeing in the tea leaves — One Direction to top the heavy metal charts, Gareth Bale to be flogged to Accrington Stanley and Keith Lemon to walk off with this year's Mastermind title?" might have been the response.
Truly it would have taken some believing.
Wales had been defeated at home by Ireland after possibly their worst half of rugby under this coaching regime. They were faced with three away games, starting against France, and their losing record stood at eight in a row.
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There was only one way Rob Howley's team looked to be going and it wasn't upwards. You didn't need to be a professor of logic to arrive at such a conclusion.
The campaign was to be about staving off the wooden spoon.
Except here Wales are, playing the old enemy for silverware.
How? Why? It doesn't stack up, particularly as France had thrashed Australia a few months earlier, Italy were looking dangerous and Scotland were also supposed to be on the up.
It has been a remarkable effort built significantly on good selection calls, players returning after injuries and a defence that has forgotten how to concede tries.
Wales have also had a solid scrum, an accurate goal-kicker and the ability to take the few chances that have come their way.
Such are the fundamentals of Test rugby.
Anyone looking for fireworks over the past month-and-a-half would have been told to wait until November 5.
But the results have come: 16-6 in Paris, 26-9 in Rome, 28-18 in Edinburgh, victories that have propelled Wales towards an improbable title, and even rugby romantics this side of the Severn Bridge might be prepared to wait for the sky to light up as long as Howley's team complete their campaign with another success.
An eight-point win would do it, or even a triumph by seven if England fail to finish more than two ahead on try count.
Stuart Lancaster's side will claim a Grand Slam if they achieve a win.
A promoter isn't needed to sell this one, though a TV reporter did dabble in that area this week by asking Shaun Edwards whether it was the biggest match in Cardiff since Warren Gatland assumed control in 2008.
Edwards hit the question back over the net with lashings of top spin, pointing out that Wales themselves had played for two Grand Slams in that time, both at the Millennium Stadium.
How could this be bigger, the sub-text of the former rugby league man's response suggested?
England were playing for the Slam this time, Wales for the title. Just because England were in town trying to achieve a clean sweep didn't make it any bigger than those occasions when sides in red had looked to complete full houses.
Well, others have still brought out the hyperbolic steroids and only just stopped short of styling the clash as the biggest Anglo-Welsh joust since Owain Glyn Dwr distinguished himself with some fine counter-attacking against travelling opponents led by Edmund Mortimer.
Supporters will make up their own minds.
A personal view is that on the red side of Offa's Dyke a Welsh Slam should always be more important than stopping an English one.
No? Each to their own.
Certainly, the Millennium Stadium will be bouncing tomorrow.
Garin Jenkins spoke this week of the atmosphere at Wembley in 1999 when he threw to the line-out from where Scott Gibbs powered over for a try that Neil Jenkins converted to deny England a Grand Slam.
The ex-Swansea hooker said the ground trembled beneath his feet as he readied himself to find his targets. "We might have been playing a home game in London but the noise was such that we may as well have been in Cardiff," he remembered.
"The vibration came through my boots but I did not feel nervous. We needed to score a try to win and this was our chance. I closed my eyes and threw."
The rest is history.
If Wales are to serve up a repeat performance they need their scrum to fire once again and their back five to work ferociously hard, particularly at the breakdown.
Rob Howley's side carries two opensides in Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric, while England have three blindsides in Tom Croft, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw: the devils's back row, someone has already suggested — 666.
Wales's optimism that their unit will click is based on how well Warburton and Tipuric have played when together this season, coming close to putting on an exhibition of breakdown skills in the 30 minutes they were on the field as a pair against Scotland.
It would be a surprise if Mike Phillips let this occasion pass without conjuring a big performance.
He becomes Wales's most capped scrum-half of all time tomorrow, with 77, and the day is made for a compelling display from a record breaker.
What is certain is that after 80 minutes some players will be reflecting on acts of game-winning glory and others lamenting costly errors.
That is always the way in sport. Talent wins matches, mistakes lose them.
One act may decide whether a player is feted or berated. Last year at Twickenham, Scott Williams stripped Courtney Lawes of possession before speeding over for the try that secured his country a Triple Crown.
Newspaper sub-editors had identified their match hero and villain before Wales's replacement centre had touched the ball down.
It takes mental strength to deal with such harsh reality, knowing how fine the line is between adulation and condemnation.
Every player will take the field aware of that truth. Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar, George North will know it; so will Alex Goode, Owen Farrell and Chris Ashton.
Sport can be an unforgiving environment to work in.
It all suggests conservatism will be the name of the game again, with the three-quarters seeing little ball.
It's a shame for Wales because they have in North, Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert, wings and centres capable of frightening any opposition.
Can the side led by Gethin Jenkins deliver?
In his book Calon, Owen Sheers tells of two banners hanging side by side in the squad's indoor training area in the Vale of Glamorgan. One says: "Yesterday is in the past." The other asks: "How do you want to be remembered?"
Days like tomorrow will dictate how these Welsh players are remembered.
Wales are strong enough to win, even without Ryan Jones. But in 123 matches between the two countries since 1881, the pair can barely be separated, with England leading 56-55, with 12 draws.
This is a rivalry that even time has been unable to do for.
Welsh optimists will take heart that their last five wins in the fixture have all involved margins of victory of seven points or more.
Pessimists will simply stay in bed tomorrow.
England have lost just two games by seven or more points since the last World Cup — to Wales, by seven, and to South Africa, by nine.
In a match where the visitors have so much to play for, it is a big ask for Howley's side to prevail by the required margin, and the bookmakers make England favourites to take the Slam.
But nothing is certain in this fixture.
Predicting the future isn't a precise science.