There are four starring roles in the lowbrow comedy masquerading as the build-up to the Six Nations opener between Wales and England in eight days' time, and three of the performers were to be found in the same room yesterday. The chief winder-up, the straight man and the opposite number were all present and correct. The only character missing? The butt of all the jokes. Dylan Hartley, red-rose hooker and new No 1 Leper in the rugby lands to the west of the River Severn, was hidden away from public view at a training camp in Portugal.
This was probably as well, given Hartley's bristling personality. Had he been at the super-swish Hurlingham Club in Fulham for the official tournament launch, he would, as sure as eggs are eggs, have said something interesting in response to the allegations thrown at him by the Welsh earlier in the week. As it was, the England manager Martin Johnson took it upon himself to do Hartley's talking for him, which was interesting in itself. Johnson rarely responds to criticism on his own behalf, let alone anyone else's.
On Monday, the Wales coach Warren Gatland set about Hartley – or rather, Hartley's reputation as a sportsman – with considerable gusto, making pointed remarks about the Northampton forward's role in a disciplinary hearing into gouging allegations against the Cardiff Blues scrum-half Richie Rees following a Heineken Cup match between two clubs shortly before Christmas. Rees was duly suspended, and will play no part in the Six Nations. If the Blues were left spitting tacks, the Wales camp were scarcely any happier at losing their second-string half-back.
Nor did he stop there, going on to suggest that in the first of the bad-tempered Northampton-Blues games, Hartley had declined an invitation to "go round the back of the stand" and sort out a dispute with the Cardiff front-rower Gareth Williams. "Let's see how he fronts up against us," the coach added, warming to his theme.
Johnson, a man with rich personal experience of the fun and games that break out when England and Wales meet for their annual frolic, did not play down the incident in the way many had predicted. Indeed, he did not even try. "Warren said a lot of things and they weren't particularly subtle," he remarked. "We expected this: in fact, we spoke about it as a group in Portugal on Monday night, then woke up to see it in Tuesday's papers. I think we all understand what this is about: they're desperate to win, their playing record being what it is, and pressure affects people in different ways.
"Dylan? He was a bit surprised, but you absorb it, don't you? He's been playing high-level rugby from a very young age and I'd say he's matured a lot in the time I've been managing the squad. He's played fantastically well for his club this season, leading them unbeaten through a tough Heineken Cup pool." Might Gatland's goading nudge a fiery individual closer to spontaneous combustion? "We don't want him crossing the line," Johnson replied. "We have two squad members suspended as it is, so we don't need a third. But we want Dylan to be Dylan, to play aggressively. That's why he's been picked."
Of course, Gatland said what he said for a reason. If his words serve to tip Hartley over the edge under the glare of the Millennium Stadium floodlights next week, he will regard it as a worthwhile exercise. Should they serve to diminish the New Zealand-born hooker's energy and cramp his style, he will see it as a result. And if the England hierarchy try to box clever by leaving Hartley on the bench and playing the veteran World Cup winner Steve Thompson instead... well, Wales might like that, too.
Gatland was his usual mischievous self yesterday. Asked whether the attack on Hartley had been his way of shifting attention away from a Wales team in dire need of a victory over major opposition, he responded with another of his well-aimed "grenades". "You're always under pressure in this job," he replied. "At least my chief executive hasn't come out and said I have to finish first or second in this competition." This was a reference to a public declaration by John Steele, the new Twickenham boss, that third or worse would be "disappointing" from England's perspective.
"I've been guilty of saying a few things in the past," Gatland continued, "but I spend longer talking to the press than I spend thinking about rugby. There are moments when I get bored and times when I give an honest question to an interesting question. The bottom line is that this is a massive game for both teams. If you lose your opening match in this tournament, things can be over for you pretty quickly."
For his part, the Wales captain Matthew Rees set himself up as a paragon of diplomacy. "Hartley's playing quite well at the moment," admitted the man who will spend next Friday night staring into the whites of his eyes at every scrum and line-out. He could not resist one little swipe, however. Asked whether he considered his fellow hooker to be especially troublesome, he replied, rather darkly: "We'll find out next Friday, won't we?"
The England contingent headed back to the Algarve as soon as the formalities were over, and with good reason. Apart from the challenge of rebuilding an England line-out virtually from scratch in the injury absences of Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft and Lewis Moody, the management were keen to receive the latest fitness bulletins on the Northampton wing Chris Ashton, out of commission with a thigh problem since his club's Premiership defeat at Leicester two and a half weeks ago, and the Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie, who "has a calf", as the sports medics like to put it.
Ashton is expected to make the Cardiff game, but England are less confident about Fourie. Should he fail to make the cut, their entire back-row planning will disappear through the nearest window.