Paul Stridgeon was born in Wigan and represented England at the Commonwealth Games – but he wants to see the Red Rose wilt next Saturday.
As Wales’ national physical performance manager, former freestyle wrestler Stridgeon plays a critical role among head coach Warren Gatland’s support team.
He has previously worked with England – a six-year stint – the British & Irish Lions, Toulon and Wasps, and is rated among the best operators in his field.
And if Wales stay on course for a Six Nations Grand Slam by beating title favourites England in Cardiff next weekend, then Stridgeon will have played a key part.
“People always ask me and Shaun (Edwards, Wales assistant coach) that question – ‘what’s it like when you play England? Who do you want to win?'” Stridgeon said.
REPORTER: Neil, how did it feel to win that famous game in Wembley in '99?— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) 14 February 2019
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“It is like, ‘are you having a laugh?’ We work for Wales. We want to win more than the Welsh boys, if that’s possible.
“On the coach on the way back (after beating England in the 2015 World Cup) I am there with my top off, and my suit trousers on, dancing.
“Me and Shaun were happier than anyone to have beaten England – because it’s your old team.”
Stridgeon and Edwards went to the same school, and they will be instrumental figures for Wales through the Six Nations, into summer preparations and then the World Cup in Japan.
“This is the best squad I’ve worked with, definitely,” Stridgeon added. “It’s the best job I’ve had.
“Wasps was a great job because we were successful and won a trophy every year, but for me working with Wales is not like being at work.
“I am telling boys to run around and do things, and they do it all. They smile and shake your hand at the end and we have a bit of banter as well.
“There are no egos in the squad whatsoever, and they are all hard-working. You tell them what they have to do, and they do it to the letter.”
Driving fitness levels is Stridgeon’s forte, and he has no doubt which way the Wales players are heading in that department.
“You can’t be the best if you are not the fittest,” he said. “The coaches allow us a lot of time to do what we want and need to do.
“Warren is not all about rugby. He is the sort of coach who if the boys are tired, he will cancel a rugby session and let us do some weights with them. That’s how much emphasis he puts and places on strength and conditioning performance.
“When you’ve got the coaches and not only the fitness staff banging the fitness drum, it’s great. They are looking at the GPS data and the training times, and that’s perfect for us.
“All we have to do is rev the boys up, push them hard, and away they go. If you combine that with the willingness of the boys to work hard, then it’s just great.”
Asked if Wales’ current squad is the fittest he has worked with, Stridgeon added: “I think it will be by the time we come to the World Cup. It definitely has the potential to be that.
“We just need time to be together. There are things we are not 100 per cent in control of because the players go back to their regions and the English clubs.
“But when we get a big amount of time together and work hard, I feel we will be in great shape by the time the World Cup starts.”
England could unleash giant wing Joe Cokanasiga upon Wales after Chris Ashton was ruled out of Saturday’s Six Nations title collision with Wales by a calf injury.
Ashton incurred the damage during the squad’s three-day camp in London and will receive treatment at his club Sale, but he is expected to recover in time for the penultimate round against Italy.
The 31-year-old acted as a replacement against Ireland but was promoted to the starting XV against France and completed 51 minutes until he was replaced by Jack Nowell.
Wing has become a position of strength for England and they will be able to absorb the loss of Ashton without too much fuss, even allowing for his formidable strike rate of 20 tries in 44 Tests.
Nowell, who dropped to the bench for France’ visit to Twickenham despite excelling in Dublin, is likely to start in the number 14 jersey to place Cokanasiga on course to win his third cap as a replacement.
Cokanasiga is present in the 33-man training squad selected for Wales having continued his comeback from knee ligament damage with a try-scoring performance in Bath’s victory over Newcastle on Saturday.
It was the Fijian-born 21-year-old’s first outing for over two months and having proved his fitness he is contention for the Principality Stadium clash, most likely in the role of impact substitute.
“I was blowing a bit towards the end but I’m confident in the knee now,” Cokanasiga said after Newcastle had been dispatched.
“Eddie (Jones) just spoke to me about getting some game time and being available for selection for Wales.
“Everything happened so quickly for me in the autumn and I haven’t had any time to think about it.
“I’ve been working hard on my rehab and hopefully I will get that shot against Wales.”
Also present in the training squad is veteran Mike Brown and Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley, although the uncapped rookie is a fringe contender.
The remote prospect of Maro Itoje facing the only other unbeaten side in the 2019 Six Nations has vanished after the Saracens lock was excluded from the 33.
Itoje was struck down by a knee injury against Ireland and while Jones floated the possibility of him securing a bench spot against Wales, he will continue receiving treatment with a view to facing Italy.
Definitely present in Cardiff will be Elliot Daly, whose attacking instincts at full-back have been influential in England’s successful start to the Six Nations.
Daly ran in the decisive try that sealed a dramatic late win in the same venue two years ago after a poor clearance provided the launchpad for a stunning counter that broke Welsh hearts.
The passing from George Ford and Owen Farrell was textbook, enabling Daly to run on to the ball at speed and touch down in the left corner.
“I watched it about a million times afterwards, but I haven’t watched it for a few years,” Daly said.
When asked if it was his greatest moment in rugby, Daly replied: “I’d say so, so far.
“Just because of the timing of the game and where we were at the time. It is definitely up there, in the top one or two.
“I just tried to get back as quickly as possible from the kick and I realised Fordy was on his bike straight away, and I could see Faz there as well.
“So I knew a couple of passes were on the cards, and it was just nice that two pretty world-class passes put it in front of me and I didn’t have to break stride and could run on to it.”
Kyle Sinckler insists his combustible reputation is undeserved but has vowed to continue bringing a combative edge to England’s front row.
Sinckler will be at the forefront of the mission to land a critical blow in the Guinness Six Nations title race by extending Eddie Jones’ winning record over Wales to five Tests when the rivals clash in Cardiff on February 23.
The Harlequins prop’s power in the loose and improving set-piece work have elevated him to the status of England’s first-choice tighthead, but he disputes his image of a volatile agitator.
“Whatever is said, I’m always in control and I always know what I’m doing. I’m never out of control,” Sinckler said.
“I have to make sure I’m in control and I don’t let the emotions get the better of me, but at the same time if you are part of the front row and playing in the forward pack it is always going to be a fine line.”
One moment in the 44-8 victory over France that could be viewed as evidence to support Sinckler’s notoriety is given a different perspective when explained by the 25-year-old Londoner.
Upon slapping France forward Arthur Iturria on the top of the head early in the second half at Twickenham, referee Nigel Owens awarded a penalty against Sinckler and issued a reminder of “Rugby’s values”.
“I was a bit frustrated about the whole incident, if I’m being honest,” Sinckler said.
“I don’t condone what I did, but they didn’t show the full replay of what actually conspired. I didn’t just smack him on the head. There was stuff that happened before.
“I don’t want to dwell on that. The big learn on for me is that I’d done my job in terms of counter-rucking, he’s lost his cool so move on instead of retaliating.
“I’m not perfect and I’ve learned from it. It’s a good lesson to learn. Just off the back of it, I tried to make a big carry. Learn from it. Don’t go trying to chase the game.”
Sinckler showed enough in eight caps as a replacement to be selected for the 2017 Lions to New Zealand, where he also performed the role of substitute tighthead in the Test series.
If targeted by Wales and Lions coach Warren Gatland, he will be ready.
“The main thing is just not letting it get in the way of the main goal which is the team winning,” he said.
“Gats does what he does. The main thing for us is that we can’t lose sleep over what they are going to do.”
Sinckler was present for England’s dramatic 21-16 victory in Cardiff two years ago when a late Elliot Daly try sealed a famous win.
“The atmosphere was electric. The Wales national anthem gets the hairs on the back of your neck standing up just with the passion from the fans,” he said.
“I remember the coach journey in and the bus driver took us the wrong way so we were a bit late for our warm-up.
“It’s pretty hostile as you would expect but it is all good fun. You see all the Welsh flags going in and everyone giving you a bit of abuse, which is good fun.”