The Final Countdown: Inside the England dressing room
You've been selected to play for your country. The day of the big Six Nations clash has arrived.
The hours before kick-off are crawling past, but at last you're on the team coach, arriving at the stadium, thousands of people cheering and jeering all around.
What happens next? Four of England's key men this season take us into the inner sanctum...
Game-time minus 90 mins
Through the crowds, past the stewards, off the coach.
"We arrive an hour and a half before kick-off," says skipper Chris Robshaw. "Right at the start we'll walk out onto the pitch, get used to the surroundings, and then we'll get in a huddle. We'll talk about our key messages. Before the Wales game it was, 'we know their defence is very aggressive in coming up, so our attack has to be deep'."
Off the pitch, into the dressing-room.
"As we walk in I'll always listen to the same three songs on my headphones," says prop Alex Corbisiero. "'Heartbeat' by Chase and Status, 'My Way' by Limp Bizkit and 'Til I Collapse' by Eminem. The order I listen to them in might change, but the songs never do."
England players' shirts are hung up in their individual cubicles in the dressing room. Picture: Getty
Where to sit?
"You have a plaque with your name on in your little cubicle," says full-back Ben Foden. "Your England shirt is hanging up with the number facing out. The order round the room is usually forwards one to eight, the replacements, and then the backs.
"At this stage the atmosphere is still quiet. Mobile phones are a big faux-pas in the changing-room. You do all your messages two hours beforehand, all the 'good luck' and 'see you afterwards' and 'pick up your tickets here'. I've never heard anyone's phone go off in the dressing-room."
Minus 75 mins
"You have half an hour of your own personal prep time before the team goes into its warm-up," says Foden. "Right now I'll be cleaning my boots. I wear the same pair of boots until we lose, and I'll always have mud on them from the previous game.
"Ashy (Chris Ashton) - his will be crystal clear, since he does them straight after the game in the showers. So I'll give mine a little wipe so they don't look too disgraceful."
One hour to go. It's time to put the armour on.
"I get my kit out," says flanker Tom Croft, "make sure the strapping on my knee and shoulder is always done the same way, by the same man Pasky (Phil Pask, team physiotherapist).
"Before we're due out as a team I'll go out myself. I always run straight across the pitch, readjust my boots, run over to the posts, stretch my hamstrings, run back to halfway, swing past the try-line and then jog in. I do that wherever I am in the world. It's almost a subconscious thing now. I don't have to think, what do I do now? My routine is laid out."
Nerves clanging, stomach tightening? Time to get out on the pitch and loosen up.
"I enjoy getting out there and getting a good 20 minutes of stretching and kicking done out on the pitch, soaking up the atmosphere," says Foden. "I like to run out of the tunnel and see all the kids leaning over, shouting out, watching everyone in the crowd wearing their England shirts shouting at you to get your attention. Some players like to block it all out, but for me that's what makes it special."
Captain Chris Robshaw takes part in a warm-up session before England's Six Nations game with Wales. Picture: Getty
Captain Robshaw leads the way. "In the warm-up you'll do a few shoulder hits, we'll do some scrummaging and some mauling, so you know you're ready for it," he says. "But that first impact is always so much harder..."
For some players, the physical work acts as a welcome release.
"I always get nerves, and I always have," admits Croft. "They used to be a hell of a lot worse than they are now. When I was young and first got in the England team, three days before a game I'd go quiet. Now it's the day of the match when it hits me.
"Once you're at the ground, your routine, the nerves start to shut up. You know what the next 45 minutes will be before kick-off. I will think through three or four things I know I can do - whether it's at a line-out, taking a high ball, running round someone. That settles me."
Back inside the dressing-room, players are preparing their bodies for the battle ahead.
"Your emotions can be all over the place before a big game, and the more hyped the game the more emotions run through you," reveals Foden.
"I think about the first kick going up, and I'm up there at the back with a big line chasing towards me and I fumble the ball and it goes through my hands. You know in movies when something's about to happen, and it will freeze and flick back to all the things that could happen? That's what goes through my head in a split second.
"But that's part of the excitement of the game. As a professional rugby player you have to have confidence in your ability, that you'll do the right thing when the big moment comes."
Others lose themselves in the practicalities.
"I get myself weighed," says Corbisiero, who usually clocks in at 18st 8lbs. "You then weigh yourself after the game, and from that you can work out how much fluid you've lost through dehydration and how much you need to replace afterwards to recover properly."
Fitness coach Dave Silvester, known to the players as Tweety (work it out) is in charge of playlists for the changing-room stereo. Even with music pumping out, players will find their own quiet corner.
"There's a time when you just need a minute by yourself," says Robshaw, "just to think about your role. You look around and someone will be sitting quietly, talking to himself, reminding himself what he has to do to exploit his opposite man, to get the best out of himself. The coaches will walk round to reiterate messages."
Half an hour to go. The atmosphere cranks up another few notches.
"There's a bit of a split between the forwards and the backs," says Foden. 'Wig' (Graham Rowntree) used to take the forwards into the showers, and they'd shout and scream at each other. Some players, like 'Dyls' (Dylan Hartley) will retch before they go on. At that point I'll walk somewhere else. That'll just make me feel ill.
"But then those guys in the pack are warriors. They need to get psyched up because they're going to come off the field hurting. They have to be a different breed, to have that mental edge."
Corbisiero, on the front line as a loose-head prop, has his own potions and tricks to fall back on.
"With half an hour left I'll take my pre-game supplements, including some caffeine, and then I'll start my pre-activation. I get my glutes [gluteal muscles] fired up with a glutes band - a rubber strap you loop around your ankles - and then work through different drills. I'll use then a Compex [an electro-stimulation machine] to get my quads fired up. I had issues with my knees when I was younger, and doing these drills gets me properly warmed up."
By now all warm-ups have been completed. You can hear the dull roar of the crowd in the stadium.
"The waiting around is the worst part, especially when the kick-off is a late one," says Corbisiero. "But rugby is such a calculated and technical game now as well as a physical one, and you can't be out of it. It's about accurate aggression, not mindless anger. You have to keep your head in the blue.
"The nerves are always there, but then you look around at your mates and take strength from each other. There are some guys who vomit. I'm lucky. I always think you need to have some fear in your heart to bring out the best in yourself. That fear of failure and fear of letting down your mates. You can use that as motivation. Your head is on and you're ready to play."
All 15 starters are laced up and good to go. All they need now are a few late words of inspiration.
"We have our leadership group within the team, and different guys will speak about attack, defence, first line-out, first scrum," reveals Croft. "The forwards will come in together, and 'Wig' (Graham Rowntree) will lead that. Then we come in as a 15, and if the boys want to talk, they'll talk. Some do, a lot don't. I'm one who will sit there quietly, trying to stay calm."
Now the skipper steps into the centre of the room.
"I will call a huddle together in the changing room," says Robshaw. "I want us sharp and ready. There will be key messages that we've talked about in training that week.
"I wouldn't say I'm a Winston Churchill type - it's not a five-minute epic. I'm not a shouter. You want to keep it simple - two or three clear points."
Hands clap. Feet stamp. Players snatch at final supplies.
"Just before we run out," says Croft, "I'll have a couple of Jelly Babies - red ones are the best, no argument - a banana and an energy drink. And then we're out."
Out through the dressing-room door, into the tunnel. Hearts pound, ears rattle.
"It's incredible being in the tunnel at Twickenham, hearing the roar of the crowd," says Robshaw. "I've played for the club there but at an international it's so intense and so passionate. It's absolutely outstanding. To run out there is like nothing else. As a kid you watch the players on TV walking down the tunnel, singing the anthem to yourself. To actually be doing it yourself alongside the other guys is incredible."
Croft, at last, is a man at ease.
"By the time you're in the tunnel ready to walk out onto the pitch, that's the easiest bit. Honestly. The hardest bit is being in the hotel beforehand. You're stuck there thinking about the result, about what might happen, what it means to everyone.
"When you're in the tunnel, everything else has fallen away. Suddenly it's just a game of rugby again."
Most of the England players like to belt out the national before kick-off, particularly Matt Stevens. Picture: Getty
To a deafening roar, Robshaw leads the team out onto the pitch.
"By that time you're pretty much in the zone. You don't really look up. You've seen how big the stadium is during your warm-up, you've seen the crowd, and of course you hear the noise. But you're focused now, you're ready to go."
Even to experienced Test stalwarts like Croft, the sensation is extraordinary.
"When you run out onto the pitch, particularly at Twickenham, with those flames are shooting up, crowd roaring, you suddenly get hit with this intense burst of energy. You just sprint off. I enjoy it immensely. When I first started playing I was quite in myself, but now I can let it go."
You line up alongside your team-mates. The band strikes up. It is time to sing your national anthem.
"I love the whole thing," admits Foden. "I like to really belt it out - I'm usually engrossed in it. In the first game I played there weren't many of us singing it, so I thought, 'bugger that, I'm going to go for it'. Although It's really hard to keep in time, because the band are always close to us, the crowd are further away and so they're on a delay, always a few words behind you."
Sportsmen don't always make the best musicians. Which players are note-perfect, and which are tuneless mumblers?
"I will sing it as low as is appropriate for myself," says Croft. "I haven't got the best of voices. Matt Stevens fancies himself as the best singer. Ben Youngs has got a terrible voice. I stand next to him, and no matter how loud the crowd, you can always hear his terrible voice belting it out."
"When the anthem is done you whip off your tracksuit top and you're almost there," says Foden. "But it's not until the whistle blows and the ball is kicked in the air that it all dissipates, and you're simply playing another game. You subconsciously hit a switch, and it all just happens."
The waiting is over. You're knee-deep in a Six Nations epic.