Rugby Union: Rowell smooths over the strains

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The Independent Online
Jack Rowell is not best known for his cricketing prowess, but judging by the way he dead- batted the latest verbal bouncer from one of his many high-profile detractors, he is capable of digging in more effectively than even the most obdurate of New Zealand tailenders.

England's coach, who has rediscovered the importance of public relations after some frosty spells during his side's pre-Christmas programme, held court at Marlow yesterday to discuss his preparations for this weekend's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham. The fine detail was soon overshadowed by the news that Geoff Cooke, Rowell's immediate predecessor, had launched a withering assault on coaching and managerial standards at Test level and had referred mockingly to the current coach's weakness for "mumbo-jumbo".

To his eternal credit, Rowell continued with his charm offensive. Dismissing rugby's version of the Cooke Report with a wry smile and a roll of the eyes, he played just one attacking stroke. "The sides with which I've been connected have won something every year bar one since 1984," he said. "That's some mumbo-jumbo."

A couple of years back, Rowell would have returned any personal criticism with interest. But the old fox is getting wise; when Dick Best, the Harlequins supremo and Cooke's left-hand man in the England set-up until 1994, decided to send some short-pitched stuff in Big Jack's direction before the match with Italy in November, the silence of the response was deafening.

Unlike last season, which was fractious in the extreme, Rowell has no intention of rising to the bait. Besides, he has enough problems on his plate without making life unnecessarily spiteful. Four forwards were unable to train at Bisham - Jason Leonard and Martin Johnson from the starting line-up; Phil Greening and Ben Clarke from among the replacements - and their absence undermined the important technical work on yesterday's agenda.

Leonard underwent minor surgery on a troublesome elbow last week and and there was no doubt about his participation at the main event. But the other three are causing more concern. Both Greening and Clarke are on medication for a debilitating flu-type virus while Johnson suffered an ankle injury as well as a bruised ego during Leicester's Heineken Cup demise at the hands of Brive last weekend.

"The European match left the Leicester contingent more fatigued than usual and we also saw a very hard game between Saracens and Wasps on Sunday, so a substantial number of the squad are more jaded than is ideal," said Rowell, who has long bemoaned the fixture pressure that forces players into increased activity around Five Nations time.

"During my first year in charge, we had a World Cup at the end of the domestic campaign and a season structured around it. I was able to ask clubs to rest players at important times and they felt able to co-operate, which was extremely helpful. It's not like that now and I think we're facing a major issue here.

"Since we played Argentina before Christmas, we've had one brief training session on a semi-frozen pitch in freezing fog. We're together now, but we're having to deal with players who are recovering from some very demanding matches."

Despite the Scots' flaccid display in defeat against Wales at Murrayfield in the first round of Five Nations encounters, Rowell expects nothing other than a demanding contest this weekend. He knows that the Scottish selectors have addressed their own shortcomings by reinstating quality players in optimum positions - Ian Smith and Bryan Redpath, quite outstanding at open-side flanker and scrum-half last year, are involved again while Gregor Townsend is back at outside-half, his most effective role - and he anticipates a more passionate display from the visitors.

"We'll see what I have always called the blue-shirt effect," Rowell said. "An England-Scotland game is an end in itself, as well as a means to an end. They'll be on the rebound after Wales - they didn't do themselves justice and are obviously a better side than they showed in Edinburgh - and the situation is a dangerous one for us, because whenever a Scot pulls on a national jersey to face England, he somehow becomes a bigger man."

However, something similar also happens to Englishmen when a Five Nations title is there to be defended. For all Cooke's mumbo-jumbo about his successor's mumbo-jumbo, Rowell has yet to experience failure against British or Irish opposition. There was a look in his eye yesterday that suggested he was in no hurry to do so.

Ireland have rejected claims that three of their players were responsible for foul play in their Five Nations match in Dublin. The French federation asked the Irish to view a video of the match, but the Irish refused to censure the trio after "relevant personnel", including refereeing experts, studied the tape.