A fortnight is a long time in rugby. Two weeks ago, all the Six Nations talk in Wales was about an Englishman, albeit one born in New Zealand: the hooker Dylan Hartley, who ended up supping in the "last laugh saloon" after helping the former world champions to a highly satisfying victory in Cardiff. Yesterday the Welsh had no option but to talk about their own kind. "We can't hide from the fact that we've lost an awful lot of games," admitted the assistant coach Neil Jenkins, "and we're not hiding from it."
Jenkins was the Principality's most-capped outside-half until Stephen Jones inched past him last year, so he took no pleasure in having to defend his fellow luminary of the No 10 Society. Defend him he did, though. Jones, a first-choice midfielder for the British and Irish Lions in 2009 and a player who commands respect wherever the game is played, was a notch or two off his level last Friday night despite contributing intelligently to his team's second-half try, and as a consequence, the selectors are under public pressure to run James Hook in the pivot position. Jenkins was having none of it.
"I know there is a lot of talk, but I think Stephen is a fantastic player," he said. "When we don't win, it always seems to be the No 10's problem. I certainly bore the brunt of that when I played, even if it was the scrum and the line-out that hadn't gone well. Everyone blames the half-backs when things don't go to plan: it's the way it is. The No 10 gets picked out, and if he did okay, people turn to the No 9. I think both Stephen and Mike Phillips [who played scrum-half at the Millennium Stadium] are very talented, and we have to back them."
Wales travel to Scotland this weekend, having managed only three victories at Murrayfield in a quarter of a century. More to the immediate point, they have now gone eight games without beating anyone. With the No 8 Andrew Powell and the wing Morgan Stoddart both injured and doubtful for the trip north, the head coach Warren Gatland is likely to restore the former captain Ryan Jones to the back row of the scrum and ask one of Tom Prydie, Tom James or Aled Brew to fill the hole out wide. His other option would be to move the Lions centre Jamie Roberts to the wing, recall Lee Byrne at full-back, play Hook alongside the dangerous Jonathan Davies in midfield and keep Jones at 10.
Needless to say, England were serenely unconcerned by all the navel-gazing on the far side of the Severn Bridge. While the two specialist forwards coaches, Graham Rowntree and John Wells, stressed the urgent need for more intensive training ahead of Saturday's meeting with Italy at Twickenham – "We need to work on issues of variety and delivery at the line-out, our line-speed in defence and our use of the ball in the opposition 22," said Wells – they could not disguise their relief at registering a first Six Nations victory on Celtic soil since Clive Woodward's team won in Scotland seven years ago.
Asked to explain the marked upturn in energy and dynamism among the England forwards, Wells pointed to the greater range of attacking potential in the side as a whole. "I think it's a case of greater team dynamism," he said. "Because we now pose significant threats all over the pitch, rather than just up the middle, we are forcing opponents to defend in more areas of the field. In addition, there is a greater maturity in the group, and I'd also say that when we can lose someone like Tom Croft, who brings something different to our rugby, and bring in someone like Tom Wood, whose debut in Cardiff would have been incredibly impressive whatever the result, it boosts everyone's confidence."
Wells said he expected the Italians, so close to a first victory over Ireland at the weekend, to ask serious questions at the set-piece and prove difficult to break down. "Those forwards of theirs have been together long than any pack in the tournament and are extremely dogmatic," he continued. "We always get pilloried for winning narrowly against them, but everyone else has the same problem. Against a side like Italy, it often comes down to dogging it out and winning ugly."
England called in two members of the Saxons squad, the Gloucester wing James Simpson-Daniel and the uncapped London Irish prop Alex Corbisiero, as cover for two of the back-up players in the elite party, Nick Abendanon of Bath and Tim Payne of Wasps, currently under treatment for toe and sternum injuries respectively.
Welsh woes: Dragonhood's winless run
Wales' last victory was in the 2010 Six Nations, a 33-10 success against Italy at the Millennium Stadium on 20 March:
* 5 June 2010
Wales 31-34 South Africa * 10 June 2010
New Zealand 42-9 Wales
* 26 June 2010
New Zealand 29-10 Wales
* 6 November 2010 Wales 16-25 Australia
* 13 November 2010 Wales 25-29 South Africa
* 19 November 2010 Wales 16-16 Fiji
* 27 November 2010 Wales 25-37 New Zealand
* 4 February 2011
Wales 19-26 EnglandReuse content