Graham Rowntree says England situation is 'strange'
Red rose management prepare for Ireland game without knowing if they'll be in work next month
If Graham Rowntree could have avoided three discussion topics yesterday they would have been, in descending order of potential embarrassment: the ongoing search for a long-term England head coach; his own future as a senior member of the red-rose staff; and the Grand Slam misfire in Dublin this time last year. Inevitably, he was asked about all three, and there were moments during his final public interrogation of the Six Nations campaign when he yearned to be somewhere – anywhere – else.
But the much-decorated former prop and current forwards strategist is nothing if not a trouper, so he answered the most awkward questions as best he could. Did he, for instance, consider himself to be in a strange position, having helped drag England from the post-World Cup swamp and coached them to three Six Nations victories in four outings to date – two more than many expected – without the slightest indication from the Rugby Football Union that he would remain in gainful employment beyond the end of the month?
"Strange? Of course it's strange," he said. "We're beyond strange now, aren't we? There's a lot up in the air at the moment. My wife understands the situation, but she's frustrated. I'm very pragmatic about things – you're talking to an old Leicester forward, remember – and I know that all we can do as coaches is perform our roles on a daily basis and let everything else take care of itself. Whatever happens afterwards, I just hope it's right for me.
"But it's not simply about the three of us in the coaching team. There are 20-odd other guys in the management saying: 'What will we be doing in six months' time?'"
Together with the caretaker head coach, Stuart Lancaster, now the runaway popular choice to keep the job on a full-time basis, and the increasingly authoritative backs coach Andy Farrell, whose contract with the Premiership champions Saracens is something the RFU will have to address with great diplomacy if he is to be retained, Rowntree has delivered in spades over the last dozen weeks or so. Like his colleagues, he has worked his share of 16-hour days; like them, he has found the experience "fulfilling".
If the governing body does not throw its weight behind the trio after this weekend's home game with Ireland, a lot of people – not least an overwhelming majority of the playing squad – will want to know what the hell and why.
Rowntree cast an interesting sidelight on Lancaster's approach to restoring fortunes at international level.
"He has a very simple philosophy," he explained. "It's about getting good people involved, people who want to work for each other. Stuart is a selfless guy, very humble man, and there is now a lot of that selflessness in the group. We talk a good deal about 'want' and you saw the way the players wanted to do things for each other in Paris at the weekend.
"I also think it's helped that we've covered a lot of bases with a smaller coaching team than has been involved with England previously. I'm not bemoaning what has happened before – there have been some famous victories down the years. But with this particular group, it works best with fewer voices."
The last time England met Ireland on Six Nations business, in Dublin at the climax of the 2011 tournament, the red-rose voice was barely heard. The home pack dominated, attacking Rowntree's charges at the scrum and whipping up a storm in the loose that left the visitors thoroughly discombobulated.
"You had to mention that, didn't you?" Rowntree groaned. "I thought we'd forgotten all about that."
He would do well to start remembering. The Irish will head to Twickenham without the great centre Brian O'Driscoll and there will be no Paul O'Connell or David Wallace either. But with the ferociously competitive flanker Sean O'Brien fully recovered from the skin infection that prevented him contributing to last weekend's victory over Scotland and his fellow back-rower Stephen Ferris operating at the peak of his very considerable powers, there is no doubting their ability to win the game.
By way of switching up the blowtorch, Ferris went after England verbally yesterday by describing them as bad losers.
"If you ask any team who they like beating, it's always England," said the Ulsterman. "Why? It's something I can't really put my finger on. I think they come with a tag of being a bit arrogant. They're a good side full of winners, but when they lose they don't like it."
Eight England squad members – the Leicester players Toby Flood and Thomas Waldrom, the Harlequins backs Jordan Turner-Hall and Karl Dickson, Bath's Lee Mears and Dave Attwood, the Northampton back-rower Calum Clark and the young Wasps lock Joe Launchbury – were sent back to their clubs yesterday, leaving Lancaster to select a 22-man match-day party from 24 contenders. Assuming the Saracens wing David Strettle is fit, he is likely to resume in place of Charlie Sharples of Gloucester, who had his issues against the French. The other man likely to prove surplus to requirements is the uncapped Quins prop Joe Marler, although the coach is keen to see him operate in the Test environment.
Flood, Waldrom and Clark are therefore available for the LV Cup final, between Leicester and Northampton, which will be staged at Worcester on Sunday.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), K Earls (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy (all Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan, D Ryan (both Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), S O'Brien, J Heaslip (both Leinster). Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), T Court (Ulster), M McCarthy (Connacht), P O'Mahony, T O'Leary, R O'Gara (all Munster), F McFadden (Leinster).
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