RUGBY UNION: Rowell worries over southern hemisphere

England's coach tells Chris Hewett he has a new set of priorities to match the unfamiliar look of his side
Click to follow
Much to be endured, little to be enjoyed." Jack Rowell has always dabbled in the classics - he once baffled the massed ranks of the press by quoting Milton at them - and those words of Samuel Johnson's seem to encapsulate the England coach's mood perfectly as he broods over exasperating last-minute injuries, agonises over errant goalkickers and generally frets and fumes his way through the build-up to this weekend's opening international of the season against Italy. That, though, is Rowell all over; it is almost as if he relaxes by refusing himself a moment's relaxation. "He's hyperactive," his wife, Sue, says. "He'll stay up into the small hours thinking something through, then disappear at the crack of dawn for some meeting or other. He thrives on it."

Rowell may occasionally come across as touchy and defensive under intense questioning - you know trouble is brewing when he addresses an adversary as "old chap" in a tone of voice that suggests hanging, drawing and quartering is the softest available option. Last season was traumatic on the public relations front. Rowell turned on the press more than once during a fraught, if ultimately successful, Five Nations campaign. This time, however, he is keeping the tin lid on his frustrations. Try to direct the conversation towards a tender spot and he will say, simply and engagingly: "Let's steer clear of that one, shall we?"

Contrary to popular belief, he is loving every minute of his association with what amounts to a brand new England side; new captain, new engine room, new half-backs, new back line, new broom. It is his side, after all, built in his own image with the raw material of his choice. Win or lose on Saturday, he will match his charges pint for pint deep into the night and outlast all but a handful of them. "I enjoy success on the field, the realisation of something a group of talented people have worked incredibly hard to achieve," he said.

"But I relish the camaraderie, the closeness, every bit as much."

Not that life is without its stresses. "Against Italy, we will have to face up to a degree of ring rustiness," he admits. "It's an inherent danger of being inactive for eight months and I can't do a thing about it. To add to my problems, I've been seriously inhibited by players being unable to train appropriately. Every time we hold a squad session, 10 or more turn up injured. What do you expect when they're being asked to play two hard games a week?

"We're still way behind the likes of New Zealand and South Africa in getting our structures worked out. We've finally got a system in place whereby we can identify talent early and bring it through level by level, but it took us forever to achieve that. Quite honestly, our sluggishness in that direction has cost us two or three years of progress."

The southern hemisphere preys on Rowell's mind, for there lies the ultimate challenge. Eighteen months ago he watched Jonah Lomu single-handedly destroy an England side who genuinely considered themselves capable of winning the 1995 World Cup. During the summer, he flew thousands of miles to watch the New Zealanders win the first Tri-Nations tournament and then beat the Springboks in a Test series of stupefying quality. The purpose? To build up a detailed mental picture, not only of the All Blacks themselves but of the precise method of beating them.

"They seemed to me to be one of the best New Zealand teams ever, obviously gifted in all areas and all disciplines. They were playing in a user-friendly climate in South Africa - people here tend to forget that we don't have decent playing surfaces during the winter months - but they had a rare mix in that they were able to attack from anywhere and everywhere, through the forwards or via the half-backs, through midfield or through the back three.

"There is no doubt that they have moved on considerably since beating us in Cape Town. They still have the power game - indeed, their physical intensity has increased, with the big-hit tackles going in harder than ever before - but their skills have been sharpened beyond recognition. It is almost like a fast and furious game of chess with the southern nations these days, and they are throwing our own stop-start style into ever sharper relief."

Ho-hum, not much hope for us, then. "Well, I said after the World Cup that we would go through two difficult years and this will be the second of them. The side going into the World Cup was a mature one, obviously nearing the end of the road. The essential thing was to get our arms around some new talent immediately on our return. Last year we picked up on the odd individual, like Mark Regan and Jon Sleightholme, but this time we're going further."

With four freshmen in the side on Saturday, England are taking their biggest gamble since sending a par-boiled squad to Argentina in 1990. Rowell has had his eye on three of the new boys - Tim Stimpson, Andy Gomarsall and the remarkable lock Simon Shaw - for some time while the fourth, Adedayo Adebayo, has forced a place through sheer weight of performance on Bath's left wing. Selection has not, however, been a straightforward process, as the sacrificing of Jeremy Guscott indicates all too clearly.

"It wasn't particularly difficult to identify the forwards who could do the job for us but, with the modern game as it is, putting together the back division has been a pretty complex business," Rowell admits. "When players come under pressure at international level, they tend to revert to the things they are used to doing. It's a safety-net reaction.

"Fortunately, some of our club sides have changed culture this season and, as a result, the players should not be totally unfamiliar with what we are asking them do to in an England shirt. But I need someone to run the show on the field and by asking Phil de Glanville to captain the side, I think we can look to go forward in a more dynamic way.

"I'm not sure we will know exactly where we stand in world terms until the summer, when we've had a chance to digest the lessons of the Lions tour of South Africa and our own Test in Australia. It might turn out that we've made big strides or we may still be inching our way along the road. Whatever the situation, we will get there somehow."