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England braced for dragon breath

CARDIFF, February 3- England face a make-or-break showdown with Wales here Friday in a collision between the age-old rivals that is likely to define the Six Nations hopes of both teams.

Despite being the bookmakers favourites, England enter the 2011 tournament knowing that it is eight long years since they were last crowned champions, when Martin Johnson led the team to a Grand Slam in 2003.

After an encouraging past 12 months, which included home-and-away victories over Australia and the emergence of a new generation of promising youngsters, England’s fortunes appear to be on the up.

A comprehensive defeat to South Africa in the last of their November internationals, however, came as a sobering reminder that England under Johnson’s management remain a work in progress.

That defeat to the Springboks has left Johnson and England at the crossroads as they prepare to embark on their quest for Six Nations glory.

Win convincingly at the Millennium Stadium on Friday and England will carry precious momentum into their next three fixtures — all at Twickenham — before their championship concludes against Ireland in Dublin.

Defeat, however, against a Welsh side which has lost six of its last seven matches, will be viewed as a huge setback to England as they build towards this year’s World Cup in New Zealand.

Johnson has challenged his side to feed off the anti-English sentiment in Cardiff, where they have not won since 2003.

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"Being an Englishman in Cardiff on that weekend means you aren’t the most popular, which is great. I’d rather have that than polite indifference," Johnson said this week.

"They (Wales) want to beat England at rugby — that is not a secret and we want to win down there. It is a good occasion. We have to be ready when we do go and play. You want to play in the big games."

Johnson’s preparations have been disrupted by injuries to three key forwards — lock Courtney Lawes, blindside Tom Croft and captain Lewis Moody.

Lawes has been replaced by Louis Deacon, while Northampton’s Tom Wood will make his debut in place of Croft.

Moody’s position will be taken by Stade Francais loose forward James Haskell, while the captaincy goes to centre Mike Tindall, the only member of the starting XV who has experienced an English victory in Cardiff.

"Mike’s a natural leader with his knowledge of the game and the way he marshals the backline. It was natural for him to step in," Johnson said.

England’s injury problems pale in comparison to Wales, whose list of casualties include both first choice props, Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins.

Wales coach Warren Gatland has also been deprived of the services of Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Tom Shanklin, Andrew Bishop and Richie Rees.

Gatland, who stoked English fires last week with a verbal assault on hooker Dylan Hartley, acknowledged that the stakes were high for both sides.

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"It’s an important game for both teams, we’ve both got aspirations for the Six Nations. If you win this game you get off to a good start, which breeds confidence and breeds momentum," Gatland said. "It’s important for England as well. You are going to see two really motivated teams on Friday night that are desperate to get a performance and a result."

Wales have made seven changes to the side which was beaten by New Zealand in their final autumn series match last year, plus a positional switch that sees James Hook shifted to fullback.

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