Rugby Union: Five nations focus: England's front-row pedigree: Continuity the key as scrum trio tackle Wales head on. Barrie Fairall reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN RUGBY'S packing order, England have what you call real front-row union and when Jason Leonard, Brian Moore and Jeff Probyn bind tight for the first scrum in Cardiff tomorrow, three Welshmen of yesteryear should raise a toast. The English trio will be joining forces for the 19th time in their country's cause, matching the feat of the old firm of Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor and Graham Price.

Continuity rules and it makes sense, England's hopes of an unprecedented hat-trick of Grand Slams, not to mention first back-to-back victories at the Arms Park, enhanced by the four-square efforts of three players who have remained undisturbed throughout the Five Nations' Championship since joining forces against Wales in January 1991.

England's win that day, their first in Cardiff for 28 years, set them on the road to successive championship clean sweeps. Now, having squeezed out the French at Twickenham, another journey beckons and cosy togetherness is in complete contrast to a Welsh side two thirds of whose front row are new to rugby at this level.

Price, the holder of a record 41 caps for Wales as a prop and who featured in the last Welsh Grand Slams of 1976 and 1978, is right when he says there is no substitute for experience. 'These guys are fit enough, they are strong enough and they've got all the right techniques, plus the fact that playing together for so long is going to hold them in good stead.'

It is a hard life upfront, one of blood, sweat and cauliflower ears, which the Welsh not so long ago were treating with leeches. It is one thing having your ear nibbled in a scrum, but to have it sucked by a leech . . . Price, meanwhile, talks of more serious dangers of the kind that required the 24-year-old Leonard to have neck surgery last summer.

'I had a neck and spinal scan a few weeks ago,' Price said. 'It looked as if somebody had gone round all the lines of the vertebrae with a rubber. Everything was vague and that's the arthritis taking hold. But when you're that young it makes you wonder.' Price, though, first represented Wales when he was 22, the age Leonard made his England debut, though the Harlequin has already won 22 caps since announcing himself against Argentina in Buenos Aires two years ago.

'For his age, he's crammed in a lot of experience,' Price said. 'One thing, though, is that he doesn't contribute much in the loose. Perhaps because he's a youngster he's leaving it up to the others to call the shots. He should start asserting himself because the game is now geared for props who can do a bit in the loose.'

Price's idea of contributing in the loose came on his debut in Paris in 1975, when a kick and chase up the length of the Parc des Princes brought him a great try in a famous Welsh win. Happy days but while Wales are rebuilding from front to back, Price pride still burns brightly.

Wales are throwing in the 6ft 2in, 17st- plus loose head Ricky Evans, who will need all the strength that comes from lugging 400lb rocks around in a strong-man competition at the Royal Welsh Show last summer if he is to hold Probyn, holder of 34 caps. Asked if he had seen anything of Evans, Price said: 'I've played against him] He was an honest, good all-round player and the boys playing for Wales are not going to respect reputations.'

Brave words when you consider that England's front row already totals 98 caps. 'I think their advantage is that they're all quite short (Leonard and Probyn are 5ft 10in; Moore 5ft 9in) difficult customers,' Dick Best, England's coach, said, 'and in a set-piece orientated country they've realised there's more to life than just scrummaging.'

That said, Best recognised: 'Jeff, warts and all, is still the best scrummager in England on the tight head and when he goes that will be the turning point for changing our game.' He also expands Price's theme on Leonard. 'I don't know if he's just been satisfied to sit there.'

Best relishes the wind-up. 'I actually rate this new Welsh guy. I've seen him play and he's very mobile. At least you knew what you were getting with Mike Griffiths - an old-style Welsh prop. But Evans can actually do more. I wouldn't be surprised if he comes through in the championship. And the hooker Nigel Meek's from Pontypool, so he's no mug.'

Surely, though, England's pack hold all the front-row aces? 'Experience is the confidence of knowing that the unexpected can't arise,' is the reassuring answer delivered by Peter Wheeler, who as hooker partnered Fran Cotton and Phil Blakeway throughout England's 1980 Grand Slam season. 'What the Welsh don't know at the moment are the differences playing in an international scrummage. They'll worry they won't be able to cope.'

They will also find: 'Probyn's an awkward customer to scrummage against. That's another worry for the Welsh, because Evans hasn't faced him. As for Moore, I think his all-round contribution has been remarkable in the last three or four years and while he's probably starting to slow down a little, he's beginning to organise the scrum and the line-out.'

Wheeler's line on Leonard is familiar. 'You rarely see Jason in the loose. He works hard on scrummaging and the line- out but compared to someone like Fran Cotton, who was always used in short- penalty routines, Jason doesn't get involved. He should be expanding his role.'

Cotton joins in what Leonard should regard as constructive criticism. 'He's done a tremendous amount for a young player already,' the Lion-hearted prop said. 'But if he's going to take the next stage and be up there in the top half- dozen in the world we now need to see him dominating his opponents rather than just holding his own.'

Leonard has his answer. 'You learn something every game. It's really a case of everyone trying to knock you off that top spot. People are always going to be pushing you.' Blakeway, ever the gentleman, offers encouragement. 'He's having an outstanding international career - two Grand Slams, a World Cup final. My word, you can't complain at that.'

Mike Burton, who preceded his Gloucester colleague in the England front row, agrees. 'He's come on in leaps and bounds and proved he's the man to stand there under all pressures. I also think Moore is exceptional and we can now see the effect it had on Probyn not having Wade Dooley behind him against France.'

As Probyn said: 'Martin Johnson did very well for a first-time cap in a pack he hadn't played in or trained with. OK, we weren't dominating, but if you've got a player of the experience and size of Dooley it makes a big difference. There's no substitute for playing together. People may think of England as being complacent but we certainly aren't - especially in the front row.' And a special one - manna from heaven, as opposed to Bread of Heaven.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments