The one topic of discussion at the England team base yesterday that had nothing to do with the remodelled red-rose line-out or Dylan Hartley's status as Number One Leper ahead of tomorrow night's Six Nations opener with Wales was the captaincy, awarded to the Gloucester centre Mike Tindall ahead of the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter. Both men know what it is to play in a World Cup final; both are big personalities in the dressing room as well as on the pitch. In the end, though, it was not a tight call.
"Different people do the job in different ways, and while we felt Nick did well in leading the side against Samoa back in November, I think Mike would have been first off the rank had he played in that game," said Martin Johnson, the manager, who knows a thing or three about successful captaincy. "He's vastly experienced, and while he's suffered the wear and tear that affects every international player when he reaches his 30s, he still has tremendous enthusiasm. Yes, he's a pretty relaxed bloke in training, but there's a difference between training week and game-day. He will fire up in good time for Wales. There will be nothing laid-back about him at the Millennium Stadium."
It might reasonably be said that the injury problems affecting the full-time captain Lewis Moody have resulted in England being placed in the charge of a man operating in one of the team's problem areas, but precious few midfielders are putting up their hands for selection just at the moment. The obvious contenders are considered to be too lightweight, too flaky or too injury-prone.
Olly Barkley, Dominic Waldouck and Dan Hipkiss fit into one or other of these categories, while the eternally unfortunate Mathew Tait is thought by the hierarchy to fit into all three. England are unlikely to turn away from Tindall until the brilliant Leicester teenager Manu Tuilagi reaches full flower.
If the back division pretty much picked itself, Johnson and his back-room colleagues performed all sorts of contortions in rebuilding a line-out shorn of Moody, Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes – three of their four "go-to men".
The decision to play Louis Deacon, the Leicester tractor, ahead of the more gifted Simon Shaw had everything to do with the seizure of primary possession, as did the move to introduce the uncapped Tom Wood into the back row. Wood will wear the No 6 of the blindside flanker, with James Haskell clad in the openside's No 7 shirt. However, their roles will be largely interchangeable as they attempt to snuff out the threat of the ball-hungry Cardiff Blues turnover specialist Sam Warburton.
Johnson might have been a little happier had the Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie, a groundhog operator very much in the Warburton style, been around to contest the loose ball on the floor. Unfortunately, the naturalised South African played no active part in last week's training camp because of calf trouble, and while he is back in circulation now, his recovery came too late. "When you have a two-week build-up and a player misses most of it... well, it's tough to pick him, isn't it?" the manager said.
Much of the barbed Welsh comment concerning Hartley, now firmly established as England's first-choice hooker, has been line-out driven. The Wales head coach Warren Gatland, who accused the Northampton captain of everything bar first-degree murder in an inflammatory public address last week, believes his throwing to be vulnerable, especially when the crowd turns hostile.
If Johnson was in no mood to revisit the subject yesterday – "Has anything changed since we last talked about this?" he asked, tartly – the target of Gatland's attack was prepared to offer at least a few thoughts.
"It's the first time I've had someone come after me in the press like this," he admitted. "Lots of people have tested me on the field since the obvious five years ago" – a reference to the gouging incident in a game against Wasps that earned Hartley a six-month ban – "and I've coped with that pretty well, but this has come out of left-field. If anything, though, it's given me 10 days to really prepare and motivate myself.
"Not that I need much motivating. The Millennium Stadium is the best place I've played, apart from at home. When they close the roof, the flames go up when you run on to the pitch and the crowd start singing, it's something to remember. I'm looking forward to it, definitely."Reuse content