England's ambitious new group of Six Nations contenders were subjected to what the coaching fraternity call a "spike" in training yesterday: in other words, they set about each other with meaning as a way of cranking up the emotional heat ahead of the perilous meeting with Scotland at Murrayfield this weekend. Afterwards, Graham Rowntree had what must have appeared to some as a "spike" in honesty, even though the one-time international prop has a well-earned reputation for telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Asked how he thought the Scots might react to being Calcutta Cup favourites for the first time in many moons, the forwards coach replied: "When you look at where we've been – the unspeakable past – they'll be licking their lips. Scotland always save some of their passion for us, don't they? But those are the emotions that drive you. Playing a big match like this, away from home, against opponents who are expected to beat you? I envy the players."
That striking phrase, "the unspeakable past", rang round the wood-panelled, mock-baronial surroundings of England's country house hotel. Was it simply Rowntree's way of saying that he no longer wanted to talk about the bad things that happened during the traumatic World Cup campaign in New Zealand last autumn, or was it something more? Was "unspeakable" his long-considered word of choice in describing the worst of the indiscipline that so undermined red-rose attempts to recapture the Webb Ellis Trophy? In all likelihood, it was a bit of both – but more of the latter than the former.
Rowntree is the one survivor of the World Cup coaching team. Among those who either resigned or were informed by the Rugby Football Union that they were no longer part of the England scene were men he played alongside in outstanding Leicester packs of yesteryear: namely, Martin Johnson, the manager, and John Wells, who confirmed yesterday that he was joining Newcastle's back-room staff for the remainder of the season. He would be less than human if he did not feel just a little uncomfortable, and no one ever questioned Rowntree's humanity. What happened in All Black country hurt him, for all sorts of reasons.
Still, he has a job to do and he intends to do it, with his customary enthusiasm. "We don't have as much international experience as previous England teams, but the players aren't training as though they're lacking experience and in the big Heineken Cup games recently, they didn't play like it either," he said. "We've selected on the basis of talent and form – picked what we think is the right group for the moment. What impresses me about the people we have with us here is both their energy and eagerness.
"This is a tough challenge we're facing, but it's the same every time we play the Scots: it's a fire-and-brimstone game. We're new, and we'll go to Edinburgh with some fear inside us because no one expects us to do well. But we'll have something to say about it, I think. We're certainly not going up there to lose." Was he really surprised, under the circumstances, that T-shirts celebrating a famous Scottish victory were already in circulation north of the border? "Yes," he responded. "That does surprise me. But that's up to them, isn't it? If that's the way they want to publicise the game..."
Some of England's thinking became clearer last night when eight of the 32-man training squad were sent back to their clubs for this weekend's matches in the Anglo-Welsh competition. They included the Saracens full-back Alex Goode, the Leicester No 8 Thomas Waldrom and four Bath players: the wing Matt Banahan, the prop David Wilson, the hooker Lee Mears and the lock Dave Attwood. Most surprising, perhaps, were the departures of Calum Clark, the Northampton flanker, and Joe Simpson, the Wasps scrum-half who was the third-string No 9 at the World Cup.
These decisions appear to guarantee a place in the match-day squad for uncapped players such as the Wasps hooker Rob Webber, the Leicester lock Geoff Parling, the Scarlets No 8 Ben Morgan and two hard-working Northampton favourites, the half-back Lee Dickson and the loose forward Phil Dowson. All these in addition to the much talked-about Saracens midfielders Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt, who have long been favourites to make their first Test appearances on Saturday. Two other newcomers, the Harlequins prop Joe Marler and his clubmate, the centre Jordan Turner-Hall, have also been retained.
The starting line-up will not be confirmed until tomorrow, but Dowson is mounting a very serious challenge for the No 8 berth.