Henry Slade has revealed how a darts night in London acted as a team-bonding catalyst for England’s outstanding victory over Ireland last Saturday.
The squad gathered for refreshments and arrows at theme bar Flight Club on the eve of their departure for a week-long training camp in Portugal where the groundwork for an epic win in Dublin was laid.
Courtney Lawes emerged as the star of the evening after Nathan Hughes revealed “he has that long reach and just places the dart on the board”, while replacement prop Harry Williams finished bottom.
Eddie Jones sanctioned an evening requested by senior players believing that the danger of misbehaviour was outweighed by the benefit of allowing his Six Nations title challengers to connect.
“They didn’t get into trouble which was fantastic and isn’t always the case when you’ve got 30 guys going out and having a drink,” Jones said.
“They wanted to go into the camp ready to go, have some stories to tell and have some togetherness. That’s where we’re going as a team.”
Slade, who served notice of his arrival as a Test player by scoring two tries at the Aviva Stadium, appreciates the value of gathering in a social environment.
“We had a room, played some darts, had a couple of drinks and had a real good time,” Slade said.
“We do a very similar thing at Exeter at the start of pre-season and it’s a great way to get to know each other.
“You feel closer to the bloke next to you because you’ve shared experiences off the field. It’s not purely business and work – you’re playing with your mates.
“It feels like your back at school playing with your mates, who you genuinely want to do well for.
“The coaches came to us and said ‘is there anything you think would be beneficial?’ so a couple of the senior boys got together.
“We had a room. There were loads of electronic dartboards, linked up to a scoreboard. You didn’t have to actually count yourself – some people would be buggered with that.
“I never really play at all but I had a hell of a checkout – three doubles. I shocked myself.
“The bulk of us have been here for a few years now. We’ve had a real emphasis on being together on and off the field, getting together in little groups off the field and having a good time.
“We didn’t tend to do that as much before. You share experiences off the field and that brings you together on the field.”
Wasps flanker Thomas Young and Leicester wing Jonah Holmes will make their Six Nations debuts for Wales in Saturday’s clash with Italy.
Young, who won two caps on Wales’ 2017 summer tour against Tonga and Samoa, lines up in Rome alongside back-row colleagues Aaron Wainwright and Josh Navidi.
Centre Jonathan Davies captains his country for a first time – regular skipper Alun Wyn Jones is on the replacements’ bench – as Wales head coach Warren Gatland makes 10 changes and one positional switch from the side that beat France last week.
There is also a Six Nations bow for Holmes, who made his Test debut during this season’s autumn series, with scrum-half Aled Davies and flanker Wainwright handed first starts in the tournament.
Centre Owen Watkin, fly-half Dan Biggar, who replaces Gareth Anscombe, hooker Elliot Dee and lock Jake Ball also feature, with Navidi moving from blindside flanker to number eight.
Players that started the 24-19 victory over France who are not involved in Wales’ match-day 23 this weekend include wing George North, centre Hadleigh Parkes and hooker Ken Owens as Gatland maximises a 31-man squad who have trained in Nice this week.
TEAM NEWS 🏴 @JonFoxDavies will lead Wales for the first time against @Federugby this Saturday. #ITAvWAL— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) February 7, 2019
🔴 Capteiniaeth am y tro gyntaf i'r gŵr o'r gorllewin ar gap rhif 70 am y gêm @SixNationsRugby.#HWFN #ForTheJersey pic.twitter.com/h3aa0Qyb2A
Young is the son of Wasps rugby director and former Wales prop Dai Young, and he has been among the Gallagher Premiership’s most consistent performers this season.
He now has a glorious chance to show his Test credentials at the start of a World Cup year.
Victory for Wales at the Stadio Olimpico would make it 11 successive wins and equal their all-time unbeaten record set between 1907 and 1910.
They have also not lost to Italy for 12 years, while the Azzurri are without a win against any Six Nations team since 2015.
Gatland said: “We have made a number of changes this weekend, but have picked what we think is a very exciting team that still has huge experience throughout it.
“We have made a similar number of changes to what we did last year, but it is all about opportunity for these players. We have had a squad of 31 training together, replicating the Rugby World Cup, and it is important they get game time.
“It is a great opportunity for Jon (Davies) as captain. He has a huge amount of experience, is a great leader and it is a great honour for him to lead his country.
“Italy will be hurting after last weekend (they lost to Scotland), but they are a different proposition in Rome.
“They are an experienced team themselves and they will be looking to put things right on the pitch after their opening defeat.”
Wales team to play Italy in Rome on Saturday: Liam Williams (Saracens); Jonah Holmes (Leicester), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets, capt), Owen Watkin (Ospreys), Josh Adams (Worcester); Dan Biggar (Northampton), Aled Davies (Ospreys); Nicky Smith (Ospreys), Elliot Dee (Dragons), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Adam Beard (Ospreys), Aaron Wainwright (Dragons), Thomas Young (Wasps), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues).
Replacements: Ryan Elias (Scarlets), Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Dragons), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), Hallam Amos (Dragons).
Rob Kearney is expected to return at full-back for Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations trip to Scotland on Saturday.
The double Grand Slam-winning star was omitted from last weekend’s 32-20 defeat by England, though his replacement Robbie Henshaw struggled positionally at the Aviva Stadium.
Garry Ringrose’s hamstring injury opens the door for Henshaw to revert to his regular role in the centres, with head coach Joe Schmidt understood to be ready to restore Kearney to the 15 shirt.
Kearney approached the Six Nations chasing full fitness after a thigh issue and stayed with Leinster when Ireland headed off for warm-weather training in Portugal.
Ireland boss Schmidt then handed Henshaw a chance to impress against England at 15, the position where he made his name at Connacht and his Test debut in 2013.
The British and Irish Lions centre was unable to thrive as England exploited a lack of cohesion in Ireland’s back-three en route to their punishing four-try victory.
Connacht lock Quinn Roux should start at Murrayfield, with the dependable Devin Toner ruled out with an ankle injury.
Roux was not named in Ireland’s initial Six Nations squad, but now seems to have edged ahead of provincial team-mate Ultan Dillane, who should be named among the replacements.
Toner’s absence has exacerbated the prior lock losses of Iain Henderson to a finger problem and Tadhg Beirne to a knee complaint.