Since the start of the Six Nations early last month, Alex Corbisiero has been up close and personal with three of the more formidable scrummaging specimens in Christendom: the devout destroyer Euan Murray of Scotland; the long-haired Italian swampman Martin Castrogiovanni; and the equally shaggy Adam Jones of Wales, who must be counted among the half-dozen most influential individuals currently playing the sport. Next on the list is Nicolas Mas, pride of Catalonia and a throwback to the glory days – or rather, the gory days – when life in the front row was, to borrow a phrase from a philosopher of old, "nasty, brutish and short".
"It has, and continues to be, an incredible learning experience," Corbisiero acknowledged this week. "We're talking about some of the best the game has to offer: all of them very sound technically – they keep a good shape and generate a lot of power – but all with their different tendencies. And the French are more different than anyone, probably. When you play them, you can't dip a toe in the water to see what it's like. You have to plunge straight in."
The fundamental reality of international contests between England and France has changed significantly in the 30-odd years since one of Corbisiero's predecessors on the left-hand side of the red-rose front row, the Leicester loose head Robin Cowling, dislocated a shoulder early in the second half of a championship game in Paris but had to stay the course because there was no one to replace him. His opponent that day was Robert Paparemborde, known for good reason as the "Bear of the Pyrenees" and perhaps the greatest of all modern tight-head scrummagers. It would be nice to think Paparemborde showed a little sympathy that day. Nice, but utterly wrong-headed.
Front-rowers are no longer expected to keep playing in the face of serious orthopaedic malfunction: now, they can leave the field the moment they start breathing heavily. Not that Gareth Chilcott, who twice squared up to the French in the good old bad old days, dismisses the pampered professional-era practitioners completely. Or indeed at all. The ruffian prop from the West Country – once more colourfully known as the Wild West Country – won the last of his 14 caps at the very back end of the 1980s. It was hard then, but he wonders quite how long he would have lasted in an age where aerobic fitness counts for more than utter bastardy. Chilcott played loose-head prop against the ridiculously strong Jean-Pierre Garuet of Lourdes in 1986, tight head against the scarily committed Pascal Ondarts of Biarritz in 1989 and could only have capped the experience by hooking against the Marquis de Sade during one of the 18th century's darker periods.
"Let's face it," says the Bristolian, who made his name a dozen miles along the road at Bath. "For those who played in my day, and in my position, rugby was to some extent a game of thuggery. Garuet and Ondarts were magnificent props and I'm pleased I went up against them; not that you'd ever have wanted to meet either in an alley late at night. I'm not sure they'd have survived in today's game, though. I'm not sure I'd have survived, come to that.
"In the same way as I don't see many current front-row forwards trying to hook the ball back with their heads after being bent double in the scrum, I don't remember props of my vintage making a dozen open-field tackles in the course of a single game. We were good at what we did, but there's no room now for the antics we got up to, the things we did to each other. Yet, to my mind, a game between England and France is as big a battle now as it was then. A different battle, maybe, but still as big as they come.
"And while I may be an old has-been, I still believe to my core that the scrum still counts for something – that a team with a dominant set-piece stands more chance of winning than it does of losing. I'll tell you something else, while we're at it: I'm damned sure that Nicolas Mas, of all the props playing international rugby now, believes it too."
It was Mas, more than any other Frenchman, who made England's life a misery the last time they visited Paris, in the early spring of 2010. So miserable that two-thirds of the England front row, the hooker Dylan Hartley and the tight-head prop Dan Cole, were substituted at half-time. It was harsh on both of them, for the man who really struggled to stand his ground was the loose head Tim Payne, who spent much of the first half propping against thin air while Mas bored in at will, driving his granite head into Hartley's face. An elevated television shot provided graphic evidence of the power generated by Mas – power that surged diagonally across the England scrum, immobilising Hartley and forcing Cole to buckle on the far side of the front row.
Little wonder, then, that Hartley has been heard speaking about a search for "redemption" this weekend. "There are a few demons that need exorcising, I guess" the exiled New Zealander admitted. "Two years ago, we lost the game within a game, and if we invite Mas in this time, he'll be rubbing his stubble in my nice smooth face again. It's about being prepared for everything when you play the French – the pride, the passion, the power, all the things they bring – and meeting them full on." Does he still watch footage of that uncomfortable contest two years ago? "I don't have to," he replied. "I've got it right here in my head."
This game represents a rite of passage for England's latest front-row trio, which is very much a unit of contrasts: Corbisiero, the unfailingly polite history undergraduate who has been known to analyse the torments and privations of the prop forward's lot as though it were an academic exercise; Hartley, as fiery and fractious as he is skilful, but learning to keep his temper in check; and Cole, cut from more traditional cloth – a tight head who may, in the fullness of time, develop into a red-rose Mas.
No one who has spent an hour in the company of Chilcott in recent years would mistake him for an unthinking supporter of whatever front row the England selectors might choose to field. Some units have left him distinctly underwhelmed. He does, however, see some green shoots of progress now. "I'm beginning to like the look of these three," he says. "I think Corbisiero deserved more of a run at the World Cup and I'm encouraged that he's getting his chance in this Six Nations. Cole? He's improving game on game. I think Hartley is a talent, too, although I wish there was more depth in the hooking position. Some serious challengers would force Hartley to bring out the best of himself more often than he does, but when I look around I don't see those challengers. Not at the moment.
"What strikes me when I see them play is the all-round skill they bring to the mix. In my day, I ran into props who were there for one thing: intimidation. I suppose people felt the same about me. Front-row play has moved on a long way, as have the laws governing the scrum. Even Mas has had to adapt – to get himself fitter, to contribute more away from the set-piece. But when I look at him, I still get a picture of a man who relishes confrontation, just as Garuet and Ondarts relished it. He may be the last of a dying breed, but he'll be there in Paris when England take the field."
And if they want to win, they will have to find a way of dealing with him.