Brains and brawn in the line of fire

England's fledgling prop David Wilson faces the toughest task of his career against a mighty Welsh pack. He tells Chris Hewett why he's ready for the challenge
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The Independent Online

In the third week of June last year, the British and Irish Lions lost a Test match against South Africa because Phil Vickery, the England tight-head prop, was dismantled at the scrummage, piece by splintering piece.

"You know you've had a shit game when your wife and your mum send you text messages saying they still love you," he confessed afterwards. Seven days later, the Wales tight-head prop Adam Jones did unto the Springboks as they had done unto Vickery, to the extent that the Lions would have squared the series had he not dislocated his shoulder – or rather, had his shoulder not been dislocated for him by the fearsome Bakkies Botha.

The moral of the story is clear and simply told: for all the importance of a team's "spinal" positions – from full-back through the half-backs to hooker and No 8 – it is well-nigh impossible to win a game of rugby if the bloke at No 3 is being treated to a close-up view of his own nether regions. As Mr Jones, happily restored to fitness after missing the first half of the northern hemisphere season, will be playing in today's opening Six Nations fixture at Twickenham, the Welsh can consider themselves sorted. And England? England are another matter entirely.

Neither Vickery nor his fellow West Countryman Julian White, the other principal tight-head contender over the last decade, will be on duty today. We must draw a long diagonal line from the former's native Cornwall, through the latter's beloved Devon and on into the northern mists, to find the place that spawned their successor. David Wilson may be turning out for Bath these days, but he was born in South Shields and learnt his trade with Newcastle. He is 24, nothing more than a snappy young pup in tight-head terms, yet he knows better than anyone the nature of his responsibilities this afternoon. Graham Rowntree, the team's "scrum doctor", has made sure of it.

"Twickenham is our house, so we can't be overawed by the Welsh scrum," Rowntree said during the week. "Scrummaging is about desire as much as strength and technique. Front-row forwards must have a 'want' about them, individually and collectively. We can't be beaten at the scrum by Wales. Not in this game. Not at Twickenham."

Wilson nods sagely. "Quite right," he acknowledges. "Graham is a natural communicator and he puts it well. The scrum will be a major part of the game, and attitude will have a massive influence on who comes out on top. It's a unique thing, the set piece. Just doing your own job requires 100 per cent concentration, but there's also the importance of working as a unit. If you don't get that right you end up in places you don't want to be. If you do get it right, you can dictate in other areas. We saw that pretty plainly with the Lions."

In many respects, Wilson has more of the White than the Vickery about him, although he has yet to reveal the kind of dark side associated with the former and carries the ball in a style reminiscent of the latter. While Vickery was, and is, an uncomplicated scrummager more at home with the old-style "cavalry charge" hit than the current "crouch-touch-pause-exchange phone numbers" engagement, Wilson's strengths as a set-piece technician allow him to prosper in the here and now. While he is handsomely equipped to absorb the big collisions – he is, after all, fairly substantial in the vital statistics department, standing 6ft 1in and weighing in at something over 19st – he has more about him than pure size.

"It's fair to say that when it comes to backing myself, I do so on the grounds of technique rather than sheer strength," he agrees. "The scrum engagements now are from a fixed distance, which allows referees to control them more easily. When the long-range hit was allowed, maybe there was less of a call for real scrummaging know-how. Now, it's much more of a game within a game – a bit like the old days, I suppose. The contest with the Wallabies back in the autumn was a real challenge, because they'd gone from being a bit of a laughing stock up front to doing a job on everyone. We came out of that pretty well, so I'm full of confidence."

Confident enough to step into the gym and take on Andrew Sheridan, the world's strongest prop when he isn't injured, and stronger than most even when he is? "Sheridan's different gravy," Wilson says of the loose-head specialist from Sale, who would certainly be facing the Welsh today were he not recovering from surgery on his shoulder. "He can bench-press God knows how much and there are very few rugby players in his league when it comes to lifting weights. But there's a degree of functionality here." A degree of what? Since when did a prop use words containing more than three syllables? "Functionality. Basically, it's a question of the degree to which your gym strength translates to scrummaging. Does it really make a difference if you bench 100kg, 200kg or 300kg? It matters, but not as much as people think. There are other things that matter more."

He started out as a back-row forward. "Someone told me I'd have a good chance of playing in a higher age group if I switched to the front row, so I did. Sure enough, I found myself in the England Under-16s a year young. I'd never have made that team as a loose forward." However, it is one thing winning age-group caps by the dozen, and quite another establishing a starting place at Premiership level. When Newcastle brought the outstanding All Black prop Carl Hayman to Kingston Park in the autumn of 2007, Wilson knew he was up against it. Between December of that year and the end of last season, he made only nine league starts for the Falcons. Hence the move to Bath.

"I learnt a lot from Carl, but you can go only so far sitting behind someone else," he admits. "I'd seen people like Toby Flood and Mathew Tait, players of my generation, leave the club and make their way elsewhere, and while I didn't quit Newcastle just because they had, their departures made me realise there were opportunities out there to be seized."

This evening's meeting with a dangerous Welsh team is an opportunity of mighty proportions. "I know the passion generated by this game will be totally different to anything I've experienced before, and it's difficult to be completely ready for something that's new to you," Wilson admits. "But as Graham says, we can't be overawed. And we won't be."