Inside the heart of a rugby international
Most of us will never experience the brutal, thrilling, terrifying feeling of playing in a crunch rugby international. The closest we will get to the thump and dash, to the adrenaline and fear, will be the television screen, or for the lucky few, a seat close to pitch-side.
Like many others I've often wondered what it's really like. So, with the assistance of England's key players in this Six Nations campaign, I attempted to find out. They didn't disappoint.
The countdown begins
Kick-off is only moments away. Deep in the bowels of the stadium, the players are making their final preparations for the fights ahead.
"We have a pretty intense meeting just before we leave the dressing room," reveals flanker Tom Wood. "Five minutes before you go out, there'll be a very aggressively delivered speech from the head coach or captain. They remind us that, at the end of the day, a rugby international is a battle.
"It's fierce, but it's controlled. Very rarely are you banging your head against the wall; you know there'll be enough of that going on out there. In the modern game you have to be very switched on to the technical elements. There's not a lot of room for just passion. Teams are too good - if all you do is go forward aggressively, they'll go through you."
Into the arena
Out of the tunnel, into a wall of noise. How do you cope with the immense pressure, with the sensory overload?
"If you're clever you can get rid of a lot of the adrenaline and stress hormone in the warm-up, hit some pads hard and then have your second wind ready for the game," says Wood. "Then you've burnt off the tension and you're ready to settle into the game.
"I've found the anthems the hardest part. That's when you start getting charged - you get the passion of your own anthem, you get all the noise of their anthem, and you're thinking, I just want that ball to go through the air, and not to me.
"In my England debut at the Millennium Stadium, I looked down and saw that my knuckles were white from clenching my fists. You're trying to stay calm and take deep breaths, but you're looking up at 80,000 people and thinking, 'Agh, I hope this goes well...'"
The first breakdown
Two sets of forwards have piled into each other. The ball is about to come out on the England side. How does the scrum-half decide what to do?
Youngs makes a decision against Italy in this season's Six Nations
"The majority of it is spontaneous, playing off your instincts," says England nine Ben Youngs. "You have to make a firm decision - if you're in two minds, you'll hesitate for even a fraction of a second, and you'll be tackled or throw a bad pass or put up a bad kick.
"You have the patterns and structure around you, but if you see something you have to do it. For example, if you're running to a ruck and you see there's no winger, then you make the decision to kick. Whereas if you see the winger suddenly drop back, then you have to make another decision."
The first set-piece
It's your line-out, deep in your own territory. As a hooker, you trot over to pick up the ball, opposition supporters screaming abuse at you, aware that your throw could mean the difference between a try conceded or saved.
"I can hear individuals in the crowd behind me, I can hear the whole crowd making a massive racket," admits Dylan Hartley.
"It's in your head that this is your first throw, of what it means, so you break your checklist out.
"I've got three steps that I do. I get the ball, and I set it square in my hands - I get the valve in the middle every time, I get my hands set so my thumbs are at 90 degrees to the direction of the ball. I then check I'm 90 degrees at the elbow, bring the ball back over the head with the elbows at 90 and forearms straight through the hands.
"Then all I need to do on 'four', when you pull the trigger, is make sure my hands go straight through. If they do, the ball will go in straight. Sometimes it will come out looking ugly, other times it comes out with a nice spiral. But if you stick to your checklist, nine times out of 10 the ball will come out right."
The battle is joined
After a ferocious opening, both teams are going at each other hammer and tongs. Bone-crunching hits are coming in from both sides. How do you keep the aggression at the right levels?
"In the past I've let that get too high, and I went out on the pitch very angry and fired up," admits Wood. "That means you make mistakes - usually indiscipline at the breakdown, getting offside. So now I try to focus on details, on what we've been talking about leading up to the game, specifics of the line-out, our kick-off return. I make sure I'm focused on the detail of my role rather than the occasion and the gravity of what the game means."
Smash - you knock your opposite number backwards with a huge hit. What goes through your brain as your shoulder piles into his guts?
"You get this big adrenaline surge, especially if you get a big drive on afterwards," says Wood.
"But you have to make sure you don't spend time admiring what you've just done, because making a big tackle gives you an opportunity to steal the ball or make a mess of their ruck. And that can be difficult, because sometimes if you do something really well, you want to say, 'Hey, that was good - look at what I've just done.'"
The pressure is on
A series of powerful surges has driven the opposition back to their own 22. Somewhere there could be a tiny gap, an overlap or a weak point in the defensive line.
"The closer you get to their line, the more decisions you could make," says Youngs. "You need to have a perfect picture of the pitch in your head: how many players do they have around the corner, who's back on the short side, who just made that tackle, is he a prop, is he back on his feet yet, can I go through that space...
"Your brain is constantly ticking over with information, without you even being consciously aware of it - about the prop who might be down after a tackle, or spotting, ah, he's a lazy runner, he's only just got onside, he's knackered, right, we'll hit him on this phase and have a crack at him.
"Completely subconsciously you're probably thinking about 10 things all at once. I wish I knew how it happened, but my brain is constantly inputting things and spitting out answers. That allows you to make breaks and eight of 10 times make the right decision. You know your first instinct is to pass the ball, but you're thinking about all those other things - and then, boom! you do it."
It was Youngs' spontaneous break against Australia last autumn that set up Chris Ashton's scintillating try, one of the best Twickenham has seen.
"In my head it went: turnover ball, kick to clear our lines, picked up the ball to kick, realised in the corner of my eye they had over-chased, there must be a hole, ran through. That was literally a split-second decision.
"And there can't be any fear at that point - you kick or you run. You can't think, kick/run? Kick/run? You'll be tackled, driven over your line, five-metre scrum to them.
"Kick? Run? Run - boom, go! Head up, scan, see two defenders, catch, pass, catch, pass, Ash goes away to score. I don't know if it sounds challenging or easy, but your instinct naturally takes over. And you just have to go with it."
Crossing the line
As a speed merchant lurking on the wing, you see your scrum-half emerge from a ruck with the ball and spin out a pass. Instinctively, you turn on the gas.
"Before the ball even gets passed, I can see if there is a chance there, that there is a gap the first receiver could go through," says Chris Ashton.
"I'm already on my way - even if he gets tackled, I'm still going through. As soon as the ball was passed I might be heading on inside, knowing that the covering defender will have to go straight to the ball-carrier and that it would leave me free. My angle will just be straight to the line.
"As soon as he goes through that gap I will be screaming at him, and then as soon as I'm screaming at him I know there's no-one else there and that I'm going to be able to run in.
"You don't really hear the noise when you're running. But as soon as you put the ball down, everything else in your head stops - that's when you hear it. And it's a good noise."
What of the celebration? Is the infamous Ash Splash something he thinks about in advance?
"When I went clear against Wales, as I saw the try-line coming I had no intention of doing that celebration. It was just an explosion inside me. You don't get many chances to score tries at places like that, so you may as well take advantage of it.
"With that Australia try, I could have run to the top of the stadium and kept going out of there. That's the feeling inside you. But after it you're screaming and shouting, and then you think, God, I'm knackered! The adrenaline and energy runs out of you pretty quickly.
"A minute after I've scored, when it's all calming down, I think about my dad, who passed away last year. When I'm walking back, I have a little think about him."
Down to the wire
The game is a nail-biter, never more than one score between the two teams. It could be decided by one successful penalty either way. How does the kicker cope with the pressure of knowing that the entire match - and maybe the campaign - might shortly come down to one swing of his boot?
"If you know you're two points down and you'll be looking to get into their half to win a penalty, you'll start your mental preparation early," reveals fly-half Toby Flood.
Flood looks for an opening against France
"If you've missed a big kick earlier in the match, or in the same situation a few years back, you have to understand that it's been and gone. That's just the way life and rugby is. You can't let it affect you now - you might be a different player to then, or you have learned from that experience. Acknowledge that it has happened, but don't let it faze you.
"You can tell yourself that, while your kick might appear to make the key difference to the overall score, it's not actually true. There will be 60 individual moments during the game that will have affected it just as much for better or for worse. But also acknowledge that good or bad things might happen here."
Under the cosh
10 minutes to go, and the opposition are all over you. You take a short pass on your own 22 and try to barrel your way upfield when BANG! you are hit high and low by two marauding defenders.
"If someone puts a big hit in on you, secure the ball," says Wood. "That's your priority. In the modern game you get smashed all the time, and taking a hit is a lot harder than giving one.
"The best thing is that the energy it gives you makes you want to reciprocate. It shouldn't be embarrassing if you get mullered - it might not be your fault, you might have been blindsided, but it does make spur you on to think, right, someone else has got to have one of those now.
"If you've been hit, get back on your feet straight away, even if it hurts, and get back in the game. Show it didn't affect you. That will frustrate the opposition - oh, I've smashed you - they'll be admiring their work and yet you're back on your feet before they are. Although sometimes you're concussed on the floor, so you have to worry about that another time..."
No margin for error
The ball has been secured, but you're still deep in your own 22. With the clock ticking, the game still needs to be won. Somehow, you have to get within kicking distance of the opposition posts. How?
"When you're close to your own line, instinctively your decision-making narrows," says Youngs. "You know you're less likely to play from deep - you're going to kick the corners, so I know I'll have to kick or pass, or put someone into a hole before you drop back and kick.
"If you lose a game there can be many reasons, but a lot of the time - especially when teams are very evenly matched - it's down to the half-backs.
"It's those split-second decisions that change games. And when they haven't worked, it's the ability to run those bad decisions off and go, right, I'm going to make a fantastic decision and put someone through a clean hole and they run the length.
"You learn from past experiences. If you've got five metres down the short side and you've gone down there and been driven into touch, in another game it might be on but you'll think, how long will it be on for, realistically a second? You are constantly calculating."
Three minutes on the clock. You have a line-out just inside the opposition half. Win this, and you can unleash a series of drives that could set up a winning kick at goal. In the way, snarling from the enemy line-out, is the best jumper in the world.
"If you've got a good line-out caller and you're throwing the ball into space, you've got a margin of error of a metre - you can under-throw it to your man's chest, you can go to his face, or his fingertips," says Hartley. "At other times you're threading a needle.
"It's the ones when you have the bunker in front of the green, the Paul O'Connell at the front of the line-out, where the drill needs to be spot on.
"You're stood on the line, looking down the line-out, and your line-out caller - Louis Deacon, for us - will always call it to where he believes there is space.
"We go in there with five different calls. If Paul O'Connell is marking Tom Palmer, they're not going to call Tom Palmer. They might call Tom away from O'Connell, and hopefully if the speed is right, he'll beat him to the space.
"If in doubt, go double-top every time. It's better to over-throw than under-throw, because if you see one of their jumpers get up at the front and you have doubt in your head, you don't want them catching the ball. If you go up big, the chances are your line-out man will get there and at least get a hand on it to tap it down, and even if it goes completely over the top you've got boys at the back who can clear it up."
"When I get a call, I can see which opposition player is opposite my target, and in that instant I know whether I need to go double-top, or if I can hit him with a safe ball to the chest."
The moment of truth
Possession secured, you drive the ball closer to the line. In desperate defence, one of their players goes offside at the ruck. Penalty. You have this kick to win the game.
"As soon as a decision like that is made, you get a rush of adrenaline, excitement, anxiety - a whole mix of things," admits Flood.
"But that first emotion doesn't last very long. When you pick the ball up, you have to believe in the set parameters and practices you have worked on in training. You dial into the where and what you're doing in terms of processes.
"You recognise that as humans we are all affected by pressure - it's completely natural. Confidence is a large part of it. Nothing can affect the kick that wouldn't affect it on the training ground. You have to believe that if you kick the ball as well as you can, you will definitely score; if you get it 70% right, it will still probably go over.
"Strangely, you try to relish it. These are the moments why we play the game, why you want to be a place kicker. It doesn't feel so great to just kick a penalty in a 50-point game; the bigger the kick, the more satisfaction you will take from it.
"It's why you do all that practising in all weathers; these moments are the rays of sunshine in your career."
You are battered and bruised, aching all over. You don't care. Victory, at the very death, has been won. But still you cannot rest.
"I do have a little smile on my face when I'm lying in bed that night," says Ashton. "But usually you just can't sleep.
"I don't know if it's the adrenaline, or the excitement, or replaying it all in your head. You're absolutely knackered, but you're all twitchy. You want to go to sleep but you can't. It's a strange, strange thing."