Jack Rowell stopped short of openly criticising Fran Cotton's initial Lions selection yesterday, but the England coach dropped enough hints to suggest that he was not remotely amused by the omission of his entire threequarter line. Will Carling omitted himself, of course, but Rowell made a strong point of speaking up for the others.
The failure of Phil de Glanville, Jon Sleightholme and Tony Underwood to make Cotton's preliminary party of 62 caused so much fuss last week that Rowell, who has fielded more than his fair share of flak in recent months, must have felt grateful to the selectors for taking their turn in the firing line. Yesterday, however, it was time to put his head above the parapet once again.
Rowell's heartfelt defence of De Glanville's contribution as England captain was particularly pointed. "I'm not saying Phil is any better or worse a player than John Dawes was, but he's our equivalent," he asserted. A choice of comparison could not have been more loaded for Dawes, often under-valued as a centre by his own Welsh countrymen, who captained the legendary Lions in New Zealand in 1971.
"What is important for all three players is that they perform well for England," continued Rowell. "That is the best way forward to a Lions place this summer. Knowing the three as I do, I think the events of the last week will make them more determined. Tony Underwood played the best game of rugby I've ever seen from him in Ireland 11 days ago and while I haven't discussed the Lions with him or anyone else, I know they'll give even more than usual against France."
Worryingly, De Glanville and four colleagues were still hampered by injury yesterday and will require treatment before Saturday's Five Nations confrontation at Twickenham. The captain, struggling with ankle problems sustained during Bath's weekend victory at Bristol, was joined on the casualty list by Martin Johnson, the Leicester lock, and Richard Hill, the Saracens flanker, both with similar ailments. Simon Shaw, the Bristol second row, and Mike Catt, the reserve outside-half from Bath, also complained of shoulder and calf conditions respectively.
Although Hill and Catt were unable to take any part in yesterday's session - the other three just about coped with light duties - Rowell was confident of fielding his selected side against the French. "People tend to get themselves up for an England match, especially one of this magnitude," he said.
"The French are always dangerous, frightening even, particularly when they get their fluent multi-handling game going. It seems to me that Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux, have relaunched the side with their coaching. They do not appear to be as constrained mentally as they have been in previous years and if we are not at our best, we could find ourselves leaking points."
Aware of the most recent taunts aimed at England - that they are either incapable of, or unwilling to, play fast, adventurous rugby without spending the first hour of a match squeezing the breath from the opposition - Rowell confirmed that he would be seeking early progress on Saturday.
"We need to settle more quickly and play more accurately," he said. "We started scrappily against the Irish, and we have already talked about that amongst ourselves. I know we can be untidy and give things away. If you do that against the French you are playing with fire. We need to perform with the meanness of the best New Zealand sides."
If England can live up to that demand against the Tricolores, a Grand Slam will be theirs for the taking.
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