Andy Robinson has spent the lion's share of the season talking up Twickenham as a fortress, only for England's senior outside-half to knock it back down again. Charlie Hodgson was booed and whistled to distraction during the narrow defeat by France a year ago and as a result came to view the place less as a platform for his skills than as the prison of his spirits. This weekend, when he takes the field for the opening Six Nations Championship match with Wales, he will find himself a hostage to fortune.
Robinson was fully supportive of Hodgson yesterday, as he was obliged to be. Responding to questions about the Sale player's outburst earlier in the week, in which he criticised the Twickenham crowd for their negativity and wondered aloud whether they would ever warm to him, the coach said: "Charlie's comments came from his feelings about what happened last season. They were purely retrospective. Over the last six months, he has performed really well for England. I think the crowd are right behind him now, and will be on Saturday."
Not for the first time, an England player expressed surprise at the stir caused by a few throwaway remarks. "I didn't read the papers, but my brother phoned me and said: 'Charlie, what have you been saying?'," Hodgson said. "It was completely off the cuff, but it was also an honest reflection on that game against the French, when things didn't go well for me and I found myself taking a fair bit of stick, both during and after the match. I just hope the crowd don't take my remarks the wrong way, because things have been fantastic this season."
That rather depends on the nature of England's performance against the Grand Slam champions, and Hodgson's individual contribution within it. Of course, the outside-half position is the very least of Robinson's problems as he attempts to generate some early-tournament momentum with a victory over the most implacable of rugby foes.
By sticking with Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon at centre, he, too, is at the mercy of events. If England fail for the want of a half-decent midfield kicking game, as they did in Cardiff last season, his name will be mud.
"I think we have a better understanding of what is necessary to win the game," the coach insisted. "You can't single out particular players. The kicking strategy is a collective thing, not an individual thing."
For all that, Robinson is acutely aware that field position will be of the utmost importance this weekend, hence his initial preference for Olly Barkley of Bath, one of the most potent tactical kickers in the land. The Tindall-Noon axis would have been dismantled had Barkley not dislocated his thumb during a Heineken Cup match 11 days ago.
There were few surprises in the team announced yesterday. As anticipated, Harry Ellis, of Leicester, beat Matt Dawson, of Wasps, to the scrum-half place, while Matt Stevens, of Bath, was picked at tight-head prop ahead of Julian White of Leicester. And when push came to shove, Robinson plumped for Joe Worsley at blind-side flanker - a decision that left Lawrence Dallaglio chained to the bench.
Worsley, who has been a protégé of Dallaglio's at Wasps for so long that he must have despaired of emerging as a senior figure in his own right, has won 44 caps for his country - an astonishing number, given the years he spent understudying Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back at Test level. He has played in all three back-row positions and is widely regarded as the most effective tackler in the English game. Yet he has never quite managed to secure himself a place in the sun, a fact underlined by his failure to make the cut for the British and Irish Lions last summer.
"Joe's strengths come to the fore when he is in the game," said Robinson, rather self-evidently. "He has a unique tackling style and he can be extremely dynamic in his running game. He has all the facets a coach looks for in a loose forward. I'm not much interested in what has gone before. The important thing now is that Joe thinks carefully about the game ahead and paints a mental picture of how he can get the best from himself."
Dallaglio will almost certainly play a part at some stage, thereby completing one of the more high-profile returns to England colours in recent years. Martin Corry, the No 8 and captain, is said to have fully recovered from the rib injury that prevented him playing for Leicester against Sale at Welford Road last weekend, but ribs being what they are, it would be no particular surprise if he failed to go the distance. The fascination would then surround Dallaglio's role off the bench. Would he resume as leader, or would the baton pass to someone like Tindall, a vice-captain in the past, or Steve Borthwick, the Bath lock?
Wales have named Haldane Luscombe and Matthew Watkins as a makeshift partnership in a midfield riddled with injury, while Duncan Jones of the Ospreys was picked ahead of Lions Test prop Gethin Jenkins on the loose head.
Six Nations teams
WALES (v England, Twickenham, Saturday)
G Thomas (Toulouse, capt); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), H Luscombe (Newport-Gwent Dragons), M Watkins (Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne), D Peel (Scarlets); D Jones (Ospreys), R Thomas (Cardiff Blues), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (N-G Dragons), R Sidoli (Blues), C Charvis (Newcastle), M Williams (Blues), M Owen (Dragons).
Replacements: M Davies (Gloucester), G Jenkins (Blues), A Popham (Scarlets), G Delve (Bath), G Cooper, C Sweeney (both Dragons), L Byrne (Scarlets)
SCOTLAND (v France, Murrayfield, Sunday)
H Southwell; C Paterson, M Di Rollo (all Edinburgh), A Henderson (Glasgow), S Lamont (Northampton); D Parks (Glasgow), M Blair (Edinburgh); G Kerr (Leeds), D Hall (Edinburgh), B Douglas (Borders), A Kellock, S Murray (both Edinburgh ), J White (Sale, capt), S Taylor , A Hogg (both Edinburgh)
Replacements: S Lawson (Glasgow), C Smith (Edinburgh), S MacLeod (Borders), J Petrie (Glasgow), C Cusiter (Border), G Ross (Leeds), S Webster (Edinburgh)
N Brusque (Biarritz Olympique); C Heymans (Toulouse), F Fritz (Toulouse), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), C Dominici (Stade Français); F Michalak (Toulouse), J-B Elissalde (Toulouse); S Marconnet (Stade Français), D Szarzewski (Stade Français), P de Villiers (Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), J Thion (Biarritz), Y Nyanga (Toulouse), R Martin (Stade Français), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin).
Replacements: S Bruno (Sale), O Milloud (Bourgoin), L Nallet (Castres), T Lièvremont (Biarritz) D Yachvili (Biarritz), B Boyet (Bourgoin), L Valbon (Brive).
IRELAND (v Italy, Lansdowne Road, Saturday)
G Murphy (Leicester); S Horgan (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), T Bowe (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), D Wallace (Munster), D Leamy (Munster).
Replacements: R Best (Ulster), S Best (Ulster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), J O'Connor (London Wasps), E Reddan (London Wasps), D Humphreys (Ulster), A Trimble (Ulster).Reuse content