The way the England manager Martin Johnson tells it, mention of the words "grand" and "slam" in the same sentence by any of those involved with the red-rose squad is a sackable offence, so when Mark Cueto broke ranks yesterday – "We're not a bunch of muppets: we know a Grand Slam is there to be won," the long-serving wing remarked – he appeared to be moving into P45 territory at breakneck speed. Happily for him, there is safety in numbers. Graham Rowntree, an increasingly influential member of Johnson's back-room staff, could also be heard talking about the prize at stake in Dublin this coming weekend.
When England last went through the Six Nations card eight years ago, completing the job at the old Lansdowne Road stadium just as they hope to wrap things up at the new one on Saturday night, Rowntree was in the thick of the front-row action. He is therefore perfectly placed to compare and contrast, and when challenged to do so, his comments were as surprising as they were fascinating.
"Is this side as settled as that one was? Christ no," said the man responsible for restoring England's reputation as a strong, disciplined scrummaging unit. "That team took a long time to build and there were a fair few heartaches along the way. Are the players as close as a group as we were back then? Yes. Are they as ambitious? I'd say they're more ambitious. The things they demand of each other and demand of us coaches... I've not seen it before."
It was some claim, given that Clive Woodward wanted nothing less than the earth for the team he was managing in '03 and went as close as possible to delivering it by guiding them to the world title a few months after victory in the Irish capital: a 42-6 win that in many eyes marked the high point of English rugby in the modern era. (As an aside, Rowntree talked briefly about the moment when Johnson, then the captain, led his players onto the field, stood in the wrong place ahead of the formalities, flatly refused to budge an inch and, as a consequence, forced Mary McAleese, the president of the republic, to walk halfway round Dublin in her high heels before accepting her handshake. "I was stood next to Johnno at the time," Rowntree said. "Brilliant.")
It has become apparent over the course of this tournament that what might be called the red-rose brat pack – relative newcomers such as Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Tom Wood – are the ones responsible for energising a team that seemed so short of energy this time last year. Cueto put it well. "They're high on life," he said. Having spent his career slaving away on the loose-head side of umpteen thousand scrums, Rowntree had no hesitation in including the front-row revelation Alex Corbisiero in this group.
"This game in Dublin will be a good test for him," he said of Corbisiero, whose exploits against Italy, France and Scotland have propelled him headlong into the mix for the World Cup in New Zealand later this year. "The proof of the pudding is to be found in performance on the field and we'll see how he goes against a passionate Irish pack, but the evidence suggests he'll be up to the examination. He's a very coachable kid: he doesn't stop working, he asks the right questions, he takes information on board."
Corbisiero, 22 going on 30 and patently a duck-to-water sort, is well used to information overloads, having studied at the London School of Economics. "England have their own way of playing, their own approaches to scrums and line-outs, so there has been lots to take in," he said. "It's been a matter of keeping my head down, doing my homework and really going over the ground. It helps that people are so positive, so open. I think it also helped battling through a tough time at London Irish. To get some performances out when we were really struggling for results gave me the confidence to push forward."
During the Calcutta Cup banquet on Sunday night, Corbisiero fell into conversation with Jason Leonard, the most-capped England player of them all and a front-row figure of legendary proportions, in more ways than one. Being an occasional tippler at best – "I haven't had a drink since the summer" – the younger man was just a little startled when Leonard, a formidable consumer of fine ale, insisted he must be "like a sponge". In fact, the celebrated Harlequin of old was stressing the importance of seeking out advice and soaking it up.
Leonard famously won a Grand Slam at his first attempt. If he is willing to offer a few tips on that particular subject, Corbisiero will be all ears.Reuse content