Andy Robinson, the only man on earth who looks more angry the happier he is, spent much of yesterday smiling at people - an unnerving development, given the death's head quality of his grin.
Andy Robinson, the only man on earth who looks more angry the happier he is, spent much of yesterday smiling at people - an unnerving development, given the death's head quality of his grin. England's coach was pressed on a range of subjects, from the ward-full of injuries affecting his Six Nations starting line-up to the presence of the 18-year-old Mathew Tait in the red rose back division, via the disciplinary concerns raised by the Bath lock and troublemaker-in-chief Danny Grewcock. He was more than a little touchy on each and every issue. This could mean only one thing: it must be Wales on Saturday.
When Tait arrived for the first formal question-and-answer session of a senior career stretching all the way back to the fag end of last season, Robinson went rucking and mauling into the phalanx of photographers in a style powerfully reminiscent of his meaner days in the Bath back row. When the coach was quizzed about Grewcock's latest disappearance into the red mist - prompted, as per usual, by the former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio during a Premiership match last weekend - he bit his lip before stating that he expected his resident enforcer to "play his natural game" at the Millennium Stadium. "Rugby is a physical sport," he added, darkly.
And the injuries, of which there are too many for comfort? Robinson objected to the suggestion that he had named a theoretical team, insisting that the selected XV would take the field. "Matt Dawson has come through well, Jamie Noon has been fine, Andy Hazell is out there training, Lewis Moody is running again and will train fully in the next 24 hours," he said. "When you prepare with this kind of intensity, you tend to pick up a knock or two."
Yet for all his defensiveness in a public forum, Robinson was quietly confident that he had hit the nail on the head in terms of his choices for this opening game of the grand old annual tournament. He talked up Tait without overdosing on adulation for an outside centre whose Premiership appearances for Newcastle are only just in double figures, and was wholly convincing on the promotion of Ben Kay, the Leicester lock, ahead of Steve Borthwick, the Bath second row whose performances of late would, had there been any justice in the world, have assured him of a place in the side, rather than among the replacements.
"Steve is unlucky - desperately unlucky," Robinson conceded. "But for this match, we feel we need an extra ball-carrier. We also want as much mobility as we can get, and Ben has it over Steve in terms of pace around the field. He's also a World Cup winner who has been put under real pressure on many occasions and come through. As far as the front five is concerned, it's a question of balance. We think this balance is right for this particular game."
And the Welsh balance? Interesting. Martyn Williams, the back-row craftsman from Cardiff who toured Australia with the British and Irish Lions in 2001, passed a fitness test on his injured neck yesterday and will win his 50th cap - a bonus of considerable proportions for Robinson's opposite number, Mike Ruddock, who had resigned himself to losing both Williams and Colin Charvis, the two open-side specialists of genuine class available to him.
Ruddock knows Williams will cause England some hassle if the Red Dragon tight forwards lay foundations of sufficient depth, so he has recalled the 6ft 5in, 18st lock Robert Sidoli to arms. Yet his biggest and most aggressive hooker, Robin McBryde of the Llanelli Scarlets, is on the bench, understudying the less imposing Mefin Davies. If the Welsh scrum fails to function in the opening half-hour of the contest, the coach may find himself pondering his decision in the small hours of Sunday morning.
Tom Shanklin, who scored tries for fun during the autumn internationals, plays at outside-centre in place of the injured Sonny Parker, a positional shift that allows Hal Luscombe of the Newport-Gwent Dragons to continue on the right wing.
"Obviously, it's a blow to lose Parker with the neck problem that has ruled him out of the last few Neath-Swansea Ospreys matches, but Tom is a more than able replacement who was already in contention to start," Ruddock said.
Another injured outside centre, England's Mike Tindall, may soon be switching clubs, according to senior figures at Bath, who fear they are about to lose him to their great West Country rivals, Gloucester. Tindall, a member of the World Cup-winning side in 2003, has been in contract negotiations for several weeks - negotiations that have stalled well short of his rumoured asking price of £150,000 a year.
¿ The prop Allen Jacobsen and No 8 Ross Beattie yesterday withdrew from the Scotland squad to face France in Paris on Saturday. Jacobsen has a shoulder injury and Beattie suffered damage to his head and neck playing for Northampton against Sale at the weekend.Reuse content