England's elite rugby players may be some 1,300 miles away in Portugal, preparing themselves in mind and body for the fast-approaching Six Nations Championship, but mere distance is not always enough to spare the ears from burning. One pair of ears in particular were ablaze yesterday: those belonging to Dylan Hartley, the Northampton hooker, captain and principal wind-up merchant. If, when he faces Wales in Cardiff a week on Friday, he receives a physical kicking anything like as brutal as the verbal one he took yesterday, he will spend the rest of his career limping from scrum to scrum.
Hartley found himself on the explosive end of one of Warren Gatland's "grenades" – a term widely used by the cognoscenti to describe the barbed comments that have come to define the Wales coach's mischievous approach to international relations. The latest one was a vintage example, in that it served more than one purpose. Firstly, Gatland gave full voice to the Red Dragonhood's low opinion of the England front-rower following dark happenings in two recent Heineken Cup meetings between Northampton and Cardiff Blues, thereby establishing him as the enemy's chief bogeyman ahead of what is certain to be a highly-charged contest at the Millennium Stadium. Secondly, he cranked up the heat in the hope that Hartley's line-out throwing, hardly the most dependable part of his game, might fall apart under the glare of the late-night floodlights.
The hooker was the aggrieved party when Richie Rees, the Cardiff Blues scrum-half and understudy to Mike Phillips in the Wales team, was cited for gouging during the second of those fierce Heineken games – an offence that led to a three-month ban and exclusion from all Six Nations activity. While Gatland did not seek to excuse Rees's actions yesterday, he made clear his displeasure at the nature of the victim's evidence to the disciplinary hearing. The coach is not the only man in Wales to blame Hartley, at least in part, for the length of Rees's suspension.
As if that were not enough, Gatland then proceeded to raise the subject of Hartley's scrap with the Blues hooker Gareth Williams during the first match – an incident that resulted in both men doing time in the sin bin. "He wasn't prepared to step outside with Williams, round the back of the stand, when invited to do so," remarked the coach. "Let's see how he fronts up against us on 4 February. Let's see what he has to offer."
Gatland's motive was transparent. Thanks to the loss of Tom Croft and Lewis Moody to injury, England suddenly find themselves as short of "go-to men" in the line-out as Wales are short of tight-head props. During the big Premiership derby at Leicester earlier this month, Hartley's throwing crumbled under pressure; indeed, there was more of the Eric Sykes than the Eric Bristow about him that evening, to the extent that he was substituted well before the end of the match. Might the same thing happen at the Millennium Stadium? The Welsh hierarchy are doing everything in their power to prepare the ground.
There were moments during yesterday's address when Gatland was generous in his praise of England, acknowledging their improvement at Test level. "South Africa knocked them down a peg or two in the last of the November games, but they played some brilliant rugby against the Wallabies and they're clearly developing," he conceded. "But I don't think they have any choice in taking us on up front in this game, because they don't have huge mobility in either the front or the back rows. We have real concerns in the front row because of injury, as everyone knows, but we want to be fairly expansive in our approach – to go out there and play some rugby. We've nothing to fear from England. It's our chance to put two fingers up, say 'stuff it' and take it to them."
Interestingly, Gatland was a lot happier talking about Hartley than he was discussing Martyn Williams, the supremely intelligent 98-cap flanker dropped from the Wales squad in favour of two combative young scavengers in Sam Warburton and Josh Turnbull. Asked by the television people why Williams had been dumped, the coach replied, not terribly helpfully: "We've talked about it and decided to keep the information in-house." He was even more abrupt when the subjects of Shane Williams and Gavin Henson cropped up. Was Williams the wing, fit again after should injury, a shoo-in for the England game, despite his lack of match practice? "Yes." Had Henson been considered for the squad, despite his lack of match practice? "No."
Later, Gatland was more forthcoming on the first two of those topics, at least. "This decision doesn't exclude Martyn from consideration for the World Cup later this year," he insisted. "It's just that the way the game is played at the moment, things have shifted a little towards the Warburtons. When it comes to pure rugby instinct and ability, there is no one better than Martyn. But if you look at the open-side flankers now, they're turnover specialists, not continuity men. Hyenas, I call them.
"As for Shane, we're delighted to have him available. I thought he transformed the game when he came on for Ospreys against Toulon at the weekend. The way he popped up as first receiver and made things happen was special. He hasn't had much rugby, but we won't be releasing him back to his club this weekend. He's precious to us. We don't want him picking up another injury."
Some Welsh rugby folk – most of them, perhaps – have been a little gloomy of late, and with good reason. For the third time in the 16-year history of European club competition, they have no one to follow in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup tournaments. As for performances at Test level, there has been no truly significant victory since 2008, when Wales won the Six Nations Grand Slam before beating the touring Australians in Cardiff.
"I don't feel gloomy at all," Gatland responded. "Since that successful year in '08, every campaign has been undermined by injuries to four or five important players. Sometimes, I wonder what I've done wrong to deserve that kind of luck, but maybe there will be a silver lining in having everyone fit for the World Cup in September. The reality is that we focused on getting things right up front during the autumn, and while we didn't win a game, we played the three major southern hemisphere teams and weren't smashed around by any of them. We took them on physically and came away with some confidence. That's something positive to take into this tournament."
If Wales are to beat England next week, they will need to do more than find a way of annoying Hartley. There again, England will need to do more than scrummage strongly against a couple of second-string props. It will come down to who does most with the ball they win, and under those circumstances, the Welsh always fancy their chances. "England haven't won a Six Nations title since 2003," Gatland pointed out, by way of rubbing it in. "I'd say they're under a reasonable amount of pressure."