A trip to Cardiff - Itoje and Vunipola discuss upcoming Wales clash

Mako Vunipola also had the opportunity to play for Wales but chose England
©INPHO/James Crombie

Saracens teammates Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola are eager to face the challenge of a hostile Cardiff crowd next weekend provided the game goes ahead amid talks of strike action from the Wales side. 

“It creates a better environment for everyone, the fans and the players. I definitely don't want to sit in a quiet stadium. Even if there's 60-odd thousand begging for our blood, I'd rather that than a quiet stadium,” Itoje said with a sense of anticipation.

“I love it. Especially after experiencing playing during Covid where you had no fans, it made you appreciate the atmosphere that fans bring to the stadium,” he added while reflecting on the past couple of years.

Having been part of the losing side in all three of England’s previous visits to the Principality Stadium, Itoje knows all too well the fight that Wales will put up against England regardless of their two recent losses. 

“You draw on your experiences in the past. We know that it's not an easy place to go to. It's definitely not an easy place to go to. We know that they're definitely up for England games

"However, they've played in the past is not a reflection of how they play against England. We know it's going to be a different kettle of fish. It's a new challenge, new week, new game, some slightly different sets of players. We're looking forward to the opportunity,” the lock said. 

Noise from the crowd and a dislike for England isn’t something that’s unique to Wales, but it certainly plays a huge factor in adding a belligerent tinge to the Cardiff air. 

“It's noisy. I remember the first time I played there, I can't remember who I was screaming at but I was probably the distance from about that chair to that purple chair there and I was screaming at him and he could not hear me,” he said while gesturing to towards two chairs roughly five metres apart. 

“I was literally screaming at him and he couldn't hear me. It's a noisy, noisy stadium and I guess the fans give England a warm reception as well. That's probably what's a bit unique about Cardiff.

“I've seen a lot of people that I would describe as grandmothers throw some choice fingers towards our bus,” he said with a chuckle. 

With plenty of new faces in the team who will experience a Cardiff reception for the first time, Itoje says that the team have their backs allowing them to perform at their best. 

“I would just say focus on what you need to focus on,” he said while offering advice to his teammates. 

“Focus on your game. It's a great environment. The team will support you and just go out there and do what you know you can do,” he added. 

Club and country teammate Vunipola, who on the day he received his first England Saxons was also called asking if he wanted to play for Wales, doesn’t underestimate what his former home country will bring to the game.

"I had a call from my cousin just asking whether I was interested, it was literally the same day as well. I got told in the morning by Mark McCall I'd been called into the Saxons team and then later on that day he called me and said oh the coach is asking if you'd be keen to play for Wales. I said sorry mate, I've already had the call-up. The rest is history I guess," he said with a smile.

“The weeks before now, round one and two, they mean nothing. The main thing for us now is expecting that they're going to come and bring their best. That's all we can do is try and prepare so that we go out there next Saturday and do the same," the loosehead prop added while looking ahead to England's next fixture.

Vunipola stresses that England must keep their wits about them and stay focussed on the task at hand when they take on the Welsh.

“When the crowd gets behind the Welsh it obviously lifts them. Speaking for myself, I definitely feel like the game can very easily get away from you there,” he mentioned.

“Individuals are different in the way they react, I guess once one or two things start going their way and they get a bit of energy from the crowd, they get behind them, then we start getting on the back foot.

"What you've got to learn from that is we've got to stick together and get even tighter and make sure that we're not trying to solve it ourselves individually and go back to the basics, the foundations of our game and try and claw back the momentum,” he added.