Lawrence Dallaglio would be a whole lot happier if the muscular trouble affecting Paul Grayson, England's outside-half and primary source of points, was the most serious of his problems, rather than the least of them. Unfortunately for the red rose captain, a number of unusually serious issues have cropped up since the shop-soiled world champions last took the field at Twickenham - matters he believes must be addressed immediately if the Six Nations Championship match with Wales on Saturday is to go any better than the one against Ireland 12 days ago.
Dallaglio has recently mastered the art of saying precious little at inordinate length - no great surprise, given the grief he caused himself by saying far too much during a drunken discussion with a couple of Fleet Street con-artists five years ago. Yesterday, however, he was as blunt as you like on the subject of England's slippage, accusing "certain players" of failing to set clear targets for themselves and demanding the restoration of the standards that permitted his side to challenge for, and secure, the Webb Ellis Trophy in Australia last November.
"When you carry the tag of world champions, there will always be distractions," said the Wasps No 8. "Some of those distractions are not the fault of us as players, others are of our own making. The trick is to minimise those distractions we create for ourselves. Some players in this squad have coped better than others in that respect, and every last one of us has to realise that if we aren't focused and perform below our best at international level, we'll get beaten. This is a ruthless environment, for all the right reasons - 18 months ago, I was dropped from the side after a victory over the All Blacks - and those who let their standards drop tend not to spend very long in this squad."
Short of smacking heads in public - while Dallaglio referred to "a bit of niggle" in training, he kept the details to himself - the captain could hardly have been more transparent in his thinking. And there was more. "For those of us who want to be involved in the summer tour of New Zealand and Australia," he said, darkly, "I would suggest we improve our performances in the forthcoming matches with Wales and France, and make sure we win those games. Every player here needs to put his house in order, on and off the pitch, and get things sorted out between the ears."
To a degree, the senior England players - the likes of Dallaglio, Will Greenwood, Matt Dawson and Richard Hill - believe there has been a public overreaction to the defeat by Ireland. "We were going to lose at some point," Dallaglio said, "and as it turned out, we lost a game by six points when we might have gone down by one hell of a lot more." Yet at the same time, there was been a good deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth in this week's team meetings. Dallaglio agreed that his side had been "extremely critical" of themselves, that there was a "look in the eye" that told him his men were desperate for redemption.
He was not keen to dip a toe in the murky waters of the black-market ticket rumpus involving three of his colleagues - the Northampton wing Ben Cohen and two youngsters from Bath, the outside-half Olly Barkley and the tight-head prop Matt Stevens - but he did refer to it in his wider assault on the side-tracked mindsets of his charges. "We stick together as a squad," he said. "We accept consequences together, and it is not my style to criticise individuals. But people are now looking at this team more closely than ever before and when things go wrong, be it ticket issues off the pitch or line-out problems on it, we must all take responsibility."
Happily for England, Grayson is as confident as he can be that he will be fit to face the Welsh this weekend. The 32-year-old Northampton stand-off pulled up in training on Tuesday and was found to be suffering from a minor calf strain. Should it worsen, the No 10 duties would rest between two Bath players, the inexperienced Barkley and his mentor, Mike Catt, who started playing Test rugby when his colleague was barely out of short trousers. As Dallaglio acknowledged, Barkley would be the marginal favourite to leapfrog Catt because of his status as a regular goal-kicker.
France, meanwhile, have made three changes, two of them enforced, for Sunday's game with Scotland at Murrayfield. Three-fifths of the way to their second Grand Slam of the Six Nations era, they have replaced the incapacitated Jean-Baptiste Elissalde with another goal-kicking scrum-half from the south-west heartland, Dimitri Yachvili of Biarritz.
In the back-row, Olivier Magné returns at flanker for Imanol Harinordoquy, who suffered an elbow injury while on club duty with Pau at the weekend. The one change on merit sees Pepito Elhorga of Agen promoted to the right wing ahead of Vincent Clerc.
Italy have also indulged in a little tinkering ahead of Saturday's trip to face Ireland in Dublin. The little-known Matteo Barbini of the Paduan club Petrarca replaces Manuel Dallan at centre, while the exceptionally well-known Carlo Checchinato comes in at lock for Santiago Dellape. At No 8, Scott Palmer replaces the injured Sergio Parisse.
SIX NATIONS TEAMS
FRANCE (v Scotland, Murrayfield, Sunday): N Brusque (Biarritz); P Elhorga (Agen), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), D Traille (Pau), C Dominici (Stade Français); F Michalak (Toulouse), D Yachvili (Biarritz); S Marconnet (Stade Français), W Servat (Toulouse), P de Villiers (Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), P Papé (Bourgoin), S Betsen (Biarritz), O Magne (Montferrand), T Lièvremont (Biarritz). Replacements: Y Bru (Toulouse), J-J Crenca (Agen), D Auradou (Stade Français), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin), J Peyrelongue (Biarritz), C Poitrenaud (Biarritz), V Clerc (Toulouse).
ITALY (v Ireland, Lansdowne Road, Saturday): G Canale (Treviso); N Mazzucato (Calvisano), C Stoica (Montpellier), M Barbini (Padova), D Dallan (Treviso); R De Marigny (Parma), P Griffen (Calvisano); A Lo Cicero (Lazio), F Ongaro (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano), C Checchinato (Treviso), M Bortolami (Padova), A De Rossi (Calvisano), A Persico (Leeds), S Palmer (Treviso). Replacements: C Festuccia (GRAN Parma), S Perugini (Calvisano), S Dellape (Treviso), R Mandelli (Calvisano), S Picone (Treviso), A Masi Viadana), M Bergamasco (Stade Français).Reuse content