Dylan Hartley warns of repeating past errors in Dublin
Amid the frenzied discussion of England's midfield selection dilemma for the Six Nations trip to Ireland – there was a growing sense that the coaches might revert to the tried and tested Brad Barritt-Manu Tuilagi centre partnership, although there have been as many firm predictions as there are possible permutations and they cannot all be right – one man made the salient point that if things go wrong up front, it will not matter a jot who wears the shirts numbered 12 and 13 on Sunday.
Dylan Hartley, the Northampton hooker who began last weekend's comfortable victory over Scotland on the bench but has a very strong case for promotion in Dublin, was one of the forwards blown away by a gale-force Irish storm the last time the two countries met in a tournament fixture at Lansdowne Road. He remembers the fine detail of that game with considerable clarity, and with good reason.
"What I recall more than anything was the intensity generated by Ireland," he said. "I remember the first scrum: we got rolled, we were penalised, the crowd went wild. Then they caught us with one of their 'choke' tackles, forced us into conceding a turnover… and the crowd went wild again. I took certain points from that experience, the main one being the importance of the mental side of the game when you're playing in such an environment. You have to front up emotionally and match their enthusiasm from the first whistle. You have to be right in the head."
England lost that final match of the 2011 championship by the not inconsiderable margin of 16 points, having crossed the Irish Sea in search of a first Grand Slam in eight years. They still won the Six Nations title, but there was a hollowness about the victory that is still acknowledged by those members of the team who remain involved now: Chris Ashton, David Strettle, Toby Flood, Ben Youngs and Danny Care behind the scrum; Dan Cole, Tom Wood, James Haskell and Hartley at the sharp end.
Hartley, who many believe is far too accomplished a forward – not to say campaign-hardened – to be confined to what he calls "numb bum" duty in Dublin, agreed that Ireland's expertise in holding opponents off the floor in contact as a means of winning turnover calls from referees would be a significant threat this time, as it was last.
"If you go into contact and your support stands off for just one or two seconds expecting you to make ground on your own, that battle is lost already," he said.
Would he be stressing the importance of fighting fire with fire to those in the squad who were not burnt to a crisp two years ago?
"We're not having meetings where the more experienced players are saying: 'This is what's going to happen', with me at the front making the big speech," he replied. "But when things aren't right in training, people make a point by saying: 'If we do anything like that at the weekend, it won't work'."
One of the wider England squad not to be involved this weekend, Matt Kvesic, will join Gloucester from Worcester at the end of the season – a striking success for the Kingsholmites, who beat a number of rival clubs, thought to include Leicester, for the uncapped flanker's signature.
Worcester, meanwhile, have struck two solid recruitment blows of their own by luring the Argentine outside-half Ignacio Mieres away from Exeter, and securing a second Puma, the powerful hooker Agustin Creevy, who will move from the French club Montpellier.
Halfpenny: Wales not in crisis
Leigh Halfpenny has urged Wales to play like champions in Paris on Saturday after their grip on the Six Nations title was loosened by their defeat to Ireland in last weekend's tournament opener.
History is stacked against Wales, given they have claimed only three away wins at France's expense since 1975 and have not beaten another Test country for 11 months.
The current run of eight successive defeats is Wales' worst sequence in 10 years. Their latest French assignment immediately follows Les Bleus' shock defeat to Italy.
"We still believe in ourselves," Wales full-back Halfpenny said. "We are not in crisis. At the end of the day, we are the defending champions, and that means something. We have to go out and play like we are champions.
"We have to make sure we are putting the work in throughout the week and believe that every time we take to that pitch we are going to win. That is the attitude we have to have on Saturday."
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