Andy Robinson kicks off mind games
England caretaker Lancaster refuses to be drawn into a 'war of words' ahead of the opening Six Nations encounter after Scotland coach criticises red rose behaviour at World Cup. Chris Hewett listens in
If Scotland dominated their Calcutta Cup games the way they dominated the pre-Six Nations mind games at the official tournament launch in London yesterday, the nationalist leader Alex Salmond would find his independence referendum a whole lot easier to win. With the annual championship a mere 10 days distant, age-old assumptions of English rugby supremacy seemed a thing of the past. If the Scots have ever been more confident ahead of a meeting with their nearest and dearest, no one could remember the year.
Andy Robinson, a man of Somerset who brings to Scotland the same inexhaustible desire that drove him during his time as England's head coach, was as hard on himself as he was on those who will oppose him at Murrayfield in the opening round of this season's competition.
"It's time we stopped talking about our potential and started delivering some results," said the former Bath flanker, wearing one of his narrow-eyed, super-serious expressions. "Over the last couple of years we've talked ourselves up before tournaments, only to find ourselves scrapping to avoid the wooden spoon. That's unacceptable. We're here to win, and I'm accountable in that regard. I don't want us to be unlucky losers. I want to be part of a successful team, and if it turns out that I can't make a success of this team ..."
He did not need to expand on that final thought, for the implication was clear.
For all that, Robinson's most stinging words were aimed at England: not the new England under Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach, but the England of the recent past.
"I felt two or three of their players were disrespectful in the way they conducted themselves during the World Cup," he said. "Not just towards Scotland, but to other teams. It took many forms and I'm not going to sit here and go through them. But there is a responsibility on all of us involved in this great game of ours to show respect to those we play against, as well as to those we play alongside – to conduct ourselves properly."
Robinson first raised this subject last weekend, when he accused certain England players of "arrogance". Delon Armitage, the London Irish back who has been dropped by Lancaster from the Six Nations squad, was one of the players in his thoughts, and he did not care much for the way the free-scoring Northampton wing Chris Ashton went about his business either.
"I was asked for my view and I gave an honest opinion," Robinson explained, "and if I've offended people, I'm sorry. I do believe that Martin Johnson [the England manager at the World Cup] was undermined by some of his players and I feel for him. Let's not forget that he won 10 out of 13 games and a Six Nations title last year."
If it was far from the most blatant attempt to wind up an unfamiliar England team – certainly, Robinson was not aping the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, who routinely lobs verbal "grenades" at England when a meeting is imminent – there was thought behind his words. Genuinely annoyed by the antics of the wilder members of Johnson's party, Robinson was also aware of the value of switching the blowtorch to maximum ahead of a game many expect his side to win.
For his part, Lancaster was so intent on steering clear of the issues raised by Robinson that he drove off in the opposite direction.
"I've no interest in it at all," the Cumbrian said, when asked about the so-called psychology of big-match build-ups. "I ignore all the stuff that goes around games like this. Tit for tat, war of words stuff? You won't get any of that from me. I just like to get on with it. When you come from my background – working class, farm upbringing – and you've been involved with clubs who had to struggle for everything they achieved, that's what you do."
Lancaster, who has not yet filed his application for the role of full-time England head coach, added that he and his 30-odd players talked through the World Cup misfire at a meeting in Leeds on Tuesday, before finally drawing a line.
"It was a fairly one-sided discussion, in which I explained how things would be going forward," he said. "I don't think anyone who went to New Zealand last autumn did so with the intention of creating problems off the field or of not performing well on it, but things happened and they had to be addressed. That's been done. If you keep going on about it, you'll never put it to bed. As far as I'm concerned, we've put it to bed."
Since the squad gathered for their 12-day camp ahead of what is bound to be a challenging experience in Edinburgh, Lancaster has held one-to-one meetings with each and every player. One of the most serious discussions was with Ashton, an individual who can be as wayward as he is gifted and whose recent plan to leave Northampton for Saracens has caused a good deal of strife.
"We had a big conversation," the coach said. "It was about what Chris wants to get out of playing for England and the things I believe an England player should be doing. It wasn't about his swallow-diving when he scores a try. That wasn't raised. I was more interested in the collective behaviour of the players who will be representing their country. I want to build a team in which people enjoy the company of each other, who work hard for each other, who make the supporters proud."
Unusually, in light of events before recent Six Nations jamborees, the Welsh hierarchy went out of their way to be "boring", as Gatland smilingly put it. But Gatland being Gatland, there were nuggets to be found here and there.
"I don't think the stuff Andy Robinson has been saying will affect England," he said. "They have enough to worry about just at the moment. Maybe Andy hopes this will unsettle them a little, but if it were me I'd forget about it. Why risk motivating them? Scotland have a great chance of winning at Murrayfield, especially as it's the first game. England will get better as the tournament goes on, but they'll be going up there with a new side."
If England have things to concern them, so does Gatland. Gethin Jenkins, the two-tour Lions prop, will be out until March with a knee injury and there are grave doubts over the fly-half Rhys Priestland and the flanker Dan Lydiate ahead of Wales' opening game in Ireland. With the first-choice locks, Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones, already out, they are likely to cross the Irish Sea without a third of their team.
Slanging match: How to rile the red rose ranks
There is a rich history of taunting Twickenham. Here are some notable efforts:
v Australia, 1991
Before the World Cup final, David Campese (above) lambasts England's "boring" rugby. "I wouldn't play for them if you paid me," says the amateur Wallaby wing.
v Australia, 2002
Wallaby coach Eddie Jones trumps Clive Woodward's criticism of southern hemisphere back-line techniques by accusing England of line-out chicanery.
v France, 2003
Imanol Harinordoquy, the Basque No 8 (above), says: "I despise England as much as they despise everybody else. They are arrogant and chauvinistic."
v Wales, 2011
Wales head coach Warren Gatland questions the fighting spirit of Dylan Hartley in a transparent bid to put the firebrand England hooker off his game.
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