He may have made the most appearances for Wales in the Six Nations but Martyn Williams still winces when he remembers his first appearance in the tournament. The date was February 21, 1998, the location was Twickenham, London, and the result was, from a Welsh perspective, pretty chastening. "I remember wanting to retire straight after it," he says with a chuckle, recalling the 60-26 hammering Wales took from England in what was then the Five Nations. "I think they stuffed us by about 60 points. Back in those days they were so far ahead of us, on and off the pitch. They were so much more professional."
He has, he admits, been "on the receiving end of a few hidings up there" - referring to England's 46-12 win over Wales at Twickenham in 2000 and the 50-10 rout Wales suffered two years later. But as Wales prepare to take on Martin Johnson's side in their opening game of this year's tournament tomorrow, the mood is considerably lighter and more upbeat. "We have beaten them for the past three years and played well so I think those days of 50 and 60 point beatings are well and truly behind us," says the 34-year-old flanker, who will start in a back-row triumvirate with Ryan Jones and Andy Powell. They will be charged with the task of shackling England's play-making axis of Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Care.
"We have got better," he added. "I think the talent has always been there in Wales but they just took to the professional game about six years before we did." The side, coached astutely by Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Rob Howley are, according to Williams, "feeling pretty good". "There was a bit of disruption with Lee Byrne being banned and doubt over whether he could play, but apart from that it has been a good week," he says. "We have had a good two weeks of preparation; 99 per cent of the boys are fighting fit and feeling good.
"Losing Lee would have been big, obviously, because he is a world-class full-back, but, having said that, James Hook has played at 15 and done well. That is what's important: having a good squad." A win against England is always top of the agenda for any Welsh fan during any Six Nations campaign and despite more than a decade of experience at this exalted level, Williams admits the butterflies will be running amok in his stomach before the game.
"It doesn't matter how many times you participate in the games, the nerves always kick in," he says. "It is such a big experience: 70,000 or 80,000 people in the stadium, you are representing your country. "I think the day you stop getting nervous is the day you need to look at what you are doing and ask if you should still be doing it." If Wales win tomorrow there will be a collective feeling among fans that they can take home another Grand Slam title. Is Williams looking that far ahead?
"No not at all If we win it will set us up nicely, yes, but if you look at France, Scotland and Ireland this year they are all capable of beating anyone on the right day. It is a tough one," he warns. "It is a cliche but, as a player, you really don't look any further ahead than the next game." Williams was born midway through Wales' rugby golden era: the 1970s, a decade that saw a formidable team, including JPR Williams and Gareth Edwards, claim three Grand Slams and a Triple Crown. It is little wonder then that the tournament means so much to him and his teammates.
"When I was growing up there was no such thing as the Autumn International series. It was always the Five Nations then," he says. "I would watch it as a kid. It is part of the tradition in Wales. There is such a buzz surrounding the games. It is a huge thing for everyone." Beating Ireland to become part of Wales' first Grand Slam winning team in 27 years, in 2005, is a memory that will never fade.
"It was such a special day. I think everybody in Wales remembers that day. We had waited so long. I will never forget it." There are several other Six Nations games however, that he wishes he could forget. "As a team, 2003 was terrible, when we lost every single game in the Six Nations," he says. "We lost to Italy twice, too. That is not good. And again those games when we lost by 50 or 60 points to England." But those losses, he insists, have helped to bond the team.
"There are a lot of us, a core group of us, that have been through the time when we lost every game and have gone on to win two Grand Slams. It certainly makes you a lot closer as a team. We have been through the tough times, so you appreciate the good times even more. We have got a tight-knit squad and for the new guys who come in, the youngsters, it's a pretty easy set up to walk into I think." Williams will win his 92nd cap this weekend, and extend his Welsh record of 47 in this tournament. In his tenth year with the Cardiff Blues, Williams will also celebrate his testimonial year.
Having last visited Dubai in 1996, with the Wales Sevens' team, he is hoping to return to the Emirate for a one-off event in December. Money from the year's events will be donated to the NSPCC and Velindre Cancer Centre, where Williams' late mother and brother were treated for the disease. "We are just looking at what is possible but I would love to come out to Dubai again," he said. "This testimonial year is an honour but it makes you feel old. It makes you realise you have been around for a while." @Email:email@example.com
England Manager: Martin Johnson Last year: Second Pack leader: Simon Shaw Star back: Riki Flutey Young player to watch: Chris Ashton - The youngest player, pictured, in the squad is also a newcomer to the code. The 22-year-old Northampton winger has adapted hastily since his cross-code switch from Wigan Warriors in 2007. Player they might miss: Tom Croft - The Leicester tearaway made the IRB player of the year lists thanks to his form with England and the British & Irish Lions. A knee injury means he will miss half of this Six Nations. If they were a movie star, they would be... Sylvester Stallone - Impressive muscles, but chronically lacking when it comes to ball skills (see 'Escape to Victory'). Glorious past now a distant memory. Wales Coach: Warren Gatland Last year: Fourth Pack leader: Gethin Jenkins Star back: Jamie Roberts Young player to watch: Kristian Phillips, 19, is not even the youngest player in the squad. Fellow Osprey Tom Prydie is just 17, but Phillips, the wing, is more likely to get game time. Has pace to burn and could form a lethal back-three combination with Lee Byrne and Shane Williams. Player they might miss: Gavin Henson - The sublimely talented centre, pictured, has been on an extended leave of absence after apparently falling out of love with the game. The loss of Gethin Jenkins (calf) yesterday is also a big blow. If they were a movie star, they would be... Kevin Spacey - A multi-talented performer who has won the big prize twice in recent years. Also has a fondness for singing, and a powerful presence behind the scenes. France Coach : Marc Lievremont Last year: Third Pack leader: Lionel Nallet Star back: Vincent Clerc Young player to watch: Mathieu Bastareud - Only 21, this powerful centre already has a chequered past. Aiming to let his rugby do the talking after falsely claiming he had been assaulted in New Zealand. Player they might miss: Julien Dupuy - The scrum-half, pictured, had just started to make his break on the Test stage after returning to France from Leicester, when he earned himself a 23-game ban for an eye-gouge on Stephen Ferris. If they were a movie star, they would be... Philip Seymour Hoffman - No one can know exactly what to expect from this enigmatic performer. Judge them on what they do in the future, say their supporters. Doubts remain.
Ireland Manager: Declan Kidney Last year: First Pack leader: Paul O'Connell Star back: Rob Kearney Young player to watch: Cian Healey - Tempting to go for Johnny Sexton, the fledgling fly-half, but Healey, the prop, was so outstanding in the Autumn Test win over South Africa, he cannot be ignored. He has benefitted from working with Ollie Le Roux. Player they might miss: Luke Fitzgerald - The Leinster flyer, pictured, is absence is not long term but his injury deprives them of an option at wing or centre. Sexton will be missed this weekend but Ronan O'Gara is an able deputy. If they were a movie star, they would be... Al Pacino - Found fame with a successful trilogy, but the very top award remained so elusive it seemed it might never happen. Now have the prize commensurate with talent. Scotland Coach: Andy Robinson Last year: Fifth Pack leader: Ross Ford Star back: Thom Evans Young player to watch: Alex Grove - Picked out as a potential star by Sir Ian McGeechan, the great Lions coach. The 22-year-old newcomer, who qualifies via a Scottish grandfather, packs a punch at centre Player they might miss: Jason White - Scotland have grown used to doing without Simon Taylor, the multi-talented yet perennially-injured back-rower, but the loss of White to a broken leg will be far more keenly felt If they were a movie star, they would be... Mel Gibson - Less a comment on the team itself as the coach, Andy Robinson, pictured, a foreign leader who probably does a better Scottish accent than everyone's favourite Aussie braveheart. Italy Coach: Nick Mallett Last year: Last Pack leader: Fabio Ongaro Star back: Craig Gower Young player to watch: Luke McLean - The Calvisano full-back has won 11 caps for Italy, even though he is still just 22. Like Gower at No 10, he learnt the game in Australian rugby league territory in Queensland. Player they might miss: Sergio Parisse - There is no "might" about it. The No 8, pictured, who is out with a knee injury, is their talisman and their one world-class player. If they were a movie star, they would be... An extra - You know they are there, but their role in the big show is always entirely insignificant. Might get a mention low down in the credits if they are really lucky. * Compiled by Paul Radley