Two players who might have expected to perform for England in this weekend's Six Nations opener against Scotland at Twickenham – the Northampton full-back Ben Foden and the London Irish centre Jonathan Joseph – were last night cut from the squad after one of the more difficult selection meetings of the last 12 months. Stuart Lancaster will explain his thinking tomorrow, but the red-rose coach is not believed to have ditched them because he thinks they are arrogant, condescending or pretentious.
These deadly sporting sins were among the charges laid by dear old Jim Telfer in the course of a boisterous assault on the English rugby psyche that would have made Alex Salmond and his fellow Nationalists smile from ear to ear.
The 72-year-old former Scotland and Lions coach was quoted as saying that the English "had a problem" and that they were too prone to the a-word, the c-word and the p-word to realise it. It was ultra-patriotic stuff. When it comes to the independence referendum, Telfer may just vote Yes..
"England are not as good as they think they are," he added, warming to his theme. "They were really up for it against New Zealand [in last month's game at Twickenham] – very physical against a tired team. If they had played another five times, the All Blacks would have won them all. You have to retain perspective."
The perspective of Dan Cole, one of England's most influential forwards, was sharp and to the point. "How arrogant am I on a scale of one to 10? Eleven," joked the prop. "Actually, the answer is 'not very'. We knew this was coming, so in that regard it's boring."
Among the men most amused by this latest summoning – some might call it an exhumation – of the Bannockburn spirit was the England assistant coach Andy Farrell, a great rugby man of Wigan and therefore one of the northern folk Telfer professed to like. (The fact that two of the players singled out by the Scot for criticism, the wing Chris Ashton and the scrum-half Danny Care, were also born and bred in flat-cap country merely added to the wackiness of it all.)
"A couple of the lads have seen the comments and they're taking the piss out of each other," Farrell reported. "People say these things of England every single year, but we deal with it tongue in cheek because we know what we're about.
"Jim's a legend: if I can achieve his kind of longevity in the game, I'll be happy. He's also a Scot who is very passionate about his country and thinks he's doing the right thing by it. That's fine. It's what you want in Calcutta Cup week, isn't it?
"As far as we're concerned, there will be all sorts of challenges coming our way and we have to get good at looking after ourselves. Every game we play, we find ourselves having to deal with the emotional side of rugby – and dealing with expectation, too.
"Back in the autumn, we had to deal with facing the All Blacks after two defeats, and I'm happy to say it brought the best out of us. If we're serious about being the best team in the world, expectation is something we should want. It's not something that should scare us."
This time last week, Farrell was rather less sanguine about a transparent wind-up attempt by the new Scotland coach Scott Johnson, whose spiky one-liner about England's injury list – "A sad story: it leaves them with only 40,000 players to pick from," he remarked during the official Six Nations launch – drew a cold response. It seems the red-rose types are more sensitive to wisecracks from current coaches than they are to jingoistic mudslinging from former ones.
By returning Foden to his club, the England hierarchy effectively confirmed that the existing back three of Alex Goode, Chris Ashton and Mike Brown would remain in place, with the in-form Saracens wing David Strettle covering them from the bench. By ditching Joseph in favour of the uncapped Gloucester centre Billy Twelvetrees, they have decided on a wholesale midfield reshuffle to compensate for the absence of the injured Manu Tuilagi.
If Farrell raised an eyebrow on being told of the Scottish team selection – "They'll come down with more to their game than fire and brimstone, but they'll be very physical," he predicted – so too did Cole. The Leicester scrummager, rated by many as the leading tight-head specialist in world rugby, was intrigued by the return of the Glasgow hooker Dougie Hall to the front row, and more interested still in the combined weight and power of Alasdair Strokosch and Kelly Brown on the flanks.
"They'll be pretty abrasive," he said, detecting the hand of the former England No 8 and Gloucester coach Dean Ryan, recently recruited by Johnson as a short-term forwards strategist, in the make-up of the visiting pack. "They're always very competitive at the breakdown and, very often, there's not much rugby played because of it. At least, we've found ourselves in situations where we haven't been able to play much.
"Dean may not be a full-time coach now, but he's stayed in the game week in and week out as a television analyst and he knows what's what in English rugby. That will make it interesting."Reuse content