Graham Rowntree: Wanting English forwards to play it by ear

Scrum coach is losing sleep over Murrayfield clash but he's excited by the new charges in his pack

As England's new broom sweeps closer to a Murrayfield date with Scotland that may render all the talk of revitalisation redundant, these are the days and nights of broken sleep in the Graham Rowntree household. The recently promoted forwards coach has found himself awake in the small hours with the excitement and pride and worry of it all. "Where are we going to stand in that line-out? How are we going to defend that? Who are we going to pick?" – these and other thoughts have been racing through Rowntree's brain. And the conclusion? "You think to yourself, crikey, what an opportunity."

An opportunity indeed, but with what outcome? A defeat to the Scots on 4 February could pitch England straight back to the awful post-World Cup navel-gazing. Rowntree was the only member of the old coaching regime kept on – in the anonymous and notoriously leaked players' reports only his name came up smelling of red roses – while two very good mates in the forwards coach John Wells and the manager Martin Johnson were gone, along with Brian Smith and Mike Ford.

The interim coaching set-up has Stuart Lancaster in charge and Andy Farrell soon to be seconded from Saracens to look after the backs and attack. That Rowntree is surviving is a tricky subject for the 40-year-old to cover but as we speak at the West Park Leeds club where England will train in the penultimate week before the Six Nations Championship, he does it capably.

"To a degree, these are just things that happen in a career but, oh yes, I've got plenty of sentiment," Rowntree says. "I went through the World Cup and I know how much it hurt all of us. Remember, I played in the Leicester youth team with Johnno, almost 25 years ago. And I've learnt most of my coaching off Wellsy. He had an incredible detailed eye for things and a work ethic that I learnt a lot from. I miss working with them. But I feel an unbelievable responsibility to England and to the group [of players and coaches] to make it better. I can't wait."

It is The Independent on Sunday's understanding that the top job will go to Nick Mallett for the summer tour to South Africa. And Lancaster has the fall-back of what he calls his "day job" in the RFU's elite player development when his interim contract expires at the end of the Six Nations. But Rowntree has served – and could yet serve under Mallett – in a different capacity. Even by rugby standards the man known universally as "Wig" since his young days sporting "a dodgy flat-top" of blond hair has the most monumental cauliflower ears. Great, lumpen protuberances of dead cartilage and scar tissue that, later in his career of 230 league and cup appearances for Leicester and 54 England caps but an agonising non-selection for the 2003 World Cup, bled in almost every match he played.

But this is no figure of fun. Coaching the Leicester second team, academy and his old school lit the flame; Rowntree was seconded to the England team for the 2007 World Cup, as a specialist in scrummaging and he became a full-time assistant in 2008. Now, as he puts it, "it's my neck on the line" to whittle a much-changed squad of 32 down to a XV likely to have two, three or four new caps against the Scots.

"We won't get carried away with detail," says Rowntree. "We will get a menu in place with the line-out forwards and the same with kick-offs. And get agreement with everyone on what we're doing in contact because we want to play a quick game. Honestly I haven't worked out the starting pack yet. It depends a lot on that first training week."

Moulding a back row without an out-and-out openside is one task. Up front, Alex Corbisiero of London Irish and Leicester's Dan Cole appear the likeliest props; Dylan Hartley of Northampton the favourite to be hooker. Rowntree acknowledges that England finished their World Cup with criticism raining down on Matt Stevens as the loosehead choice ahead of Corbisiero. "Matt had issues with the referee, conceding penalties [in the pool match] against Scotland," says Rowntree. "There were three in the first 40 minutes. I was hauled up in front of the IRB, three days later, to justify why we were giving penalties away. Up until that game we had the cleanest scrum in world rugby, the previous 18 months. We'd conceded [only] seven scrum penalties in the [2011] Six Nations. With two of those three penalties they wiped the slate clean; got an apology."

Nevertheless, Stevens's ability to cover both sides could now see him on the bench. And anyway a clean scrum is one thing, and being dominant another. Joe Marler, the Harlequins loosehead, can be an explosive broken-field runner but there are questions over his scrummaging – and his grooming. "Wig" chooses his words carefully on the much-publicised Marler haircut. "I've got certain views on how, with the referee, we don't want people to stick out like sore thumbs," says Rowntree. "He'll work it out for himself, how he wants to look. We have categorically never said to him, 'We will not pick you because of your haircut.' My preference would be for him not to have a purple Mohican. But I don't want to change his character. And he has toned it down in the last few weeks. I have worked with him, I know his character and he's not the finished article, he knows that, but he's got some great qualities. He's picked on his abilities."

Most clubs have a changeable "menu" of hundreds of line-out calls, formations and variations; England, according to Rowntree, might have "half to three-quarters" of the same detail by 4 February. "We've lost Louis Deacon [injured], who led the line-out well for England last year. But we've got Tom Palmer and a particular form guy who is in as injury cover in Geoff Parling, a big fella. I worked with him in Australia in 2010 and was really impressed with him then." On the same tour he described the Wasps hooker Rob Webber thus: "He's got a good, abrasive edge to the way he plays and I like that."

Above all he likes the idea of working with the country's top players. "There's always that on top of everything," says Rowntree. "You're working with the best."

England's pack going forward

England may be reigning Six Nations champions – and their former manager Martin Johnson made much of their 10 wins in 13 matches in 2011 – but many shortcomings were exposed in the three defeats by Ireland in Dublin, Wales in Cardiff and France in the World Cup quarter-final in Auckland. Retirement, injury or simple selection has removed Andrew Sheridan, Steve Thompson, Louis Deacon, Simon Shaw, Courtney Lawes, Hendre Fourie, Nick Easter, James Haskell and Lewis Moody from consideration as interim head coach Stuart Lancaster and forwards coach Graham Rowntree ponder a pack to face Scotland in Edinburgh in three weeks' time. The new-look eight could look like this:

1. Alex Corbisiero (London Irish), age 23, caps 10: Impressively assured in 2011 Six Nations but has been accused since then of being static.

2. Dylan Hartley (Northampton), 25, 34: Feisty character needs to find world-class maturity.

3. Dan Cole (Leicester), 24, 23: Just a hint that he hit a plateau in World Cup.

4. Dave Attwood (Bath), 24, 2: Offers one half of a classic bumper-and-jumper combination in the second row.

5. Tom Palmer (Stade Français), 32, 33: Can be line-out technician unless Geoff Parling plays that "mad scientist" part.

6. Tom Croft (Leicester), 26, 31: Needs to be seen with his hands on ball as often as possible.

7. Tom Wood (Northampton), 25, 9: Possible captain but does his liking for attrition chime with Lancaster's footballing philosophy?

8. Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), 25, 1: Not a regular position for the Quins skipper, so Scarlets' Ben Morgan may have a shout.

And on the bench:

Matt Stevens (Saracens, prop), 29, 39: Invaluably covers both sides of the front row.

Rob Webber (Wasps, hooker), 25, 0: A great chance to grab a place in a weak position.

Geoff Parling (Leicester, lock), 28, 0: Neck and cruciate ligament injuries have held the former Falcon back.

Calum Clark (Northampton, back row), 22, 0: Versatile and, like Webber, known to Lancaster from their time together at Leeds.

Hugh Godwin

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