England's rugby breaks down at the breakdown. Everyone knows it, and now, everyone is saying it, even the coaches and players. The delivery of possession from the tackle area against Italy last weekend was paint-dryingly slow, and seemed even slower when compared with the ball produced by Ireland, France and Wales, who were scoring whole tries in the time it took the red-rose forwards to complete a ruck. "It's the thing we've been working on," Steve Borthwick, the captain, acknowledged yesterday.
Worryingly, no senior member of the operation could quite put a finger on why grass grows quicker than England put the ball in the hands of their scrum-half. Were people habitually doing things in Premiership rugby that did not translate to the international form of the game? Borthwick's reply was impenetrable. Was it a matter of technique, then? Of players simply failing to put themselves beyond the ball with sufficient force to clear out the opposing defenders? John Wells, the forwards coach, did not commit himself either way.
Wells did predict that Italy, who swamp the tackle area in greater numbers than most Test sides, would make life difficult for all teams. But it was his response to another suggestion – that opponents commit more players to the ruck against England because they do not fear their popgun attack – that generated some interest. Wells, in place since the end of the 2006 Six Nations, noted that Brian Smith, in charge of England's "offence", had been around for rather less than a full season and "needed time to develop phases, patterns, platforms and togetherness". In other words, there might be something in the theory.
Not that there was any suggestion of breaking the coaching ranks. "We believe in what we're doing, we believe we're going in the right direction and we believe in ourselves," Wells said when pressed on how he and his colleagues were coping with the barrage of flak aimed at them since early November. "As for the players, they're working incredibly hard. If we take the things we're doing on the training field to Cardiff for this weekend's match with Wales, we'll give them a bloody good game. And if we're still in it at the end, we'll win it."
Alongside him, the scrum technician Graham Rowntree looked suitably grumpy. The former Leicester prop said he was suffering from cramp, but even if he had been feeling as fresh as a daisy, he would have had his face on – partly because of the critical reaction to what he reminded everyone was a five-try victory over the Italians, and partly at the widespread assumption that England were set fair for a Welsh hiding.
"It's not in our mentality to go down there fearing possible embarrassment," Rowntree insisted, "and it's not beyond our reach to win this game."Reuse content