Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, famously set the Six Nations pot boiling by singling out a lone England player, the hooker Dylan Hartley, for public criticism ahead of the tournament's opening match in Cardiff.
Marc Lièvremont, the coach of France, took things just a little further yesterday by setting about England in its entirety. "We have a bit of trouble with the English," he remarked. "We respect them – at least, I respect them – but we don't like them. It's better to say that than be hypocritical."
Lièvremont is not the first French rugby man to lay into les Rosbifs in the days leading into a big international match – the Basque No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy made short work of the entente cordiale a few seasons back and has never felt the slightest urge to reconsider his position – but given the interest surrounding the meeting at Twickenham this coming Saturday, which may well decide the title, this fresh assault on English sensibilities sounded less like a knee-jerk reaction to a question about age-old mutual antagonism and more like a carefully calculated attempt to get under the skin of the England manager Martin Johnson and his squad.
"You couldn't say we have the slightest thing in common with them," Lièvremont continued, warming to his theme. "We appreciate our Italian cousins, with whom we share the same quality of life; we appreciate the Celts and their conviviality... and then, with all these nations, we have one huge thing in common: we don't like the English. We left Dublin last weekend with the encouragement of all the Irish, who said: 'For pity's sake, beat the English.' The Scots? Its the same thing. It is what gives you strength against the English. It is more than just rugby."
The coach went on to describe the English as "insular", mocking their apparent obsession with the "national flag, their hymns, their chants and their traditions". After this little tirade, he launched a late charm offensive.
"We can see in terms of planning and preparation that the English are already in World Cup mode," he said, referring to the tournament that begins in a little over six months' time. "We can feel that the English players are physically on a different level."
It will be interesting to see if the Frenchman is more successful with his pre-match psycho-babblings than Gatland was with his.
In the Wales-England match, the much-maligned Hartley delivered his most disciplined Test performance to date, securing a 100 per cent return from the line-out and contributing fully to a commanding close-quarters effort that ultimately proved decisive. If Lièvremont's words have the effect on the collective that Gatland's had on the individual, the Twickenham crowd can expect to laugh last, loudest and longest come the weekend.Reuse content