Yesterday, Lawrence Dallaglio emerged as the latest exhibit in a week- long gallery of aches, pains and cry-offs. England's blind-side flanker, not only a stone-cold certainty for a Lions place but a dark horse for the captaincy, went down with flu-type symptoms here yesterday and was given only a 50-50 chance of facing the Welsh at the Arms Park this afternoon. Chris Sheasby, his Wasps team-mate, was called in as cover but if Dallaglio fails a check-up this morning, Ben Clarke will play.
Today's championship finale has been so badly devalued by enforced absences - one very influential third of what might have been an extremely dangerous Welsh side will not even be at the starting post and three other players are carrying injuries - that an England victory, rare enough on the far side of the Severn, would carry rather less kudos than usual. Indeed, defeat would leave Jack Rowell with the worst Five Nations record of his stewardship and more egg on his face than a clown at Billy Smart's Circus.
Which is how a cynic might describe the sight of Dave Alred, widely acknowledged to be the world's leading kicking specialist, putting Mike Catt, Rob Andrew and Tim Stimpson through their paces at Sophia Gardens yesterday. Alred has not been involved with the England squad for months; he has a contract with Newcastle, where Andrew, his favourite student, is director of rugby, but spends the rest of his time working with Super 12 sides in Australia or giving one-off tutorials to whoever seeks his expertise.
Andrew's bizarre recall to international duty this week as a direct result of Paul Grayson's hip injury, which left Rowell fretting about England's exposed position on the kicking front, paved the way for Alred's sudden reappearance. "Don't ask me what's going on with the Rugby Football Union," he said. "I just do as I'm asked and on this occasion, it was Rob who asked me down."
For whatever obscure reason - a reason that appears to embarrass Rowell, who this week directed all inquiries on the subject to Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director - England appear either unable or unwilling to resolve the Alred issue. As an exercise in self-flagellation, it takes the proverbial biscuit. Andrew swears by the man and that should be recommendation enough.
Rutherford revealed that England were hoping to finance a full-time kicking coach from next season, adding: "What Dave needs to do is tell us whether or not he wants to be a full-timer with the national squad. It is my view that I wouldn't like to see an England coach helping players from other countries improve their skills."
In turn, Alred pointed out that as he had been ignored by England he had been forced to make a living for himself elsewhere.
It is perfectly possible that England's chances of victory will depend on how much shine Alred managed to apply to Catt's cobweb-infested kicking technique in the space of 24 hours. The Bath outside-half proved himself a more than adequate marksman during the three-match programme of pre-Christmas internationals - certainly, goalkicking was the last thing that got him dropped - but the emotional weight of today's contest would test the nerve of an automaton, never mind a man who aims for goal only when he pulls on an England shirt.
The Welsh may look worryingly toothless without such obvious match-winners as Ieuan Evans, Scott Gibbs and Arwel Thomas, but England are fielding an untried half-back pairing of Catt and Austin Healey and more pertinently, the visitors' defeat by France a fortnight ago may well have damaged the fragile psychology of the side more than Rowell was prepared to admit during the build-up to this one.
While both Rowell and Phil de Glanville, his captain, have gone to inordinate lengths to extol the dynamic virtues of England's opening hour against the French, both men privately accept that an unacceptable degree of naivete was also evident at Twickenham that day.
"We played so fast in the first 60 minutes that an occasional breather might have been useful," said Rowell, a firm indication that the forwards may have more of a say in determining tactics this afternoon.
If Jason Leonard's tight five are given a free hand to do things their way against a Welsh pack that does not quite measure up - they will miss every ounce of Colin Charvis' muscular presence on the open-side flank - England should strong-arm their way to a Triple Crown. "We would still have under-achieved because we set out in pursuit of a Grand Slam, but the important thing is to come out with something," De Glanville said.
But more than half the England side have yet to experience the oppressive atmosphere of Cardiff on international day and they will be fearful of the occasion; especially this occasion, the last international at the Arms Park before the demolition crews move in. With Jonathan Davies grinning impishly at outside-half, Neil Jenkins ready to kick goals from everywhere and 50,000 Welshmen endeavouring to invoke the spirit of past glories, it will be hard not to be washed away by a spring tide of sentiment.
"We've heard a good deal about England's wider, more expansive style but I'm not convinced that they are wholly comfortable with it, or even that they are completely convinced by it as a way forward," Kevin Bowring, the Welsh coach, said.
"We feel we deserve better from this championship than to finish with one win from four matches and while it's been a difficult week on the selection front, we're confident of finishing with a win, just as we did last year against France."
If it comes to pass, one last piece of folklore will have been written in the annals of a wonderful rugby cathedral.Reuse content