If England are mounting a charm offensive ahead of this weekend's Six Nations meeting with Wales – and they spent much of yesterday sending what amounted to kissograms across the Severn Bridge – it makes a welcome change from being plain offensive, as they were at the World Cup last autumn. All the same, it must be unnerving for those red-rose supporters who will use forthcoming events at Twickenham as a measure of the national team's progress under the caretaker management regime of Stuart Lancaster and company.
One of that company, the forwards coach Graham Rowntree, was so complimentary in his analysis of the visitors that he ran the risk of a lifetime ban from the Front Row Union – and, more painfully still, from the Leicester club, where no forward, present or past, is permitted to be nice about anyone. "Wales are the form team," Rowntree said, with feeling. "They're playing well, aren't they? They're playing the complete game and we'll have to subdue them as a whole unit, because they have no area of weakness. They're good guys, too. I find it hard to dislike this Welsh team, though I'm doing my best."
Was this not over-egging the pudding just a touch? After all, England's recent win-loss record is rather better than the Welsh version, no matter how much of a punch Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland, George North and the rest are packing behind the red-shirted scrum. Twelve victories in 15 outings since the turn of last year, compared with 11 from 18? Statistics do not always tell the full story, this being a case in point, but only the terminally innumerate could argue that Wales are tripping the light fantastic while their opponents are tripping over their own feet.
Rowntree did not buy the argument, even so. "You have to give Wales respect," he insisted. "They're fit – they have to be fit to play the way they do – and they're showing real quality from one to 15. If you give them time on the ball and let them build those waves of possession..."
But what about the enforced change in the favourites' front row, the coach's area of specialist knowledge? Inexperienced Ken Owens, rather than the calf-strained pair of Matthew Rees and Huw Bennett? "I've been watching Owens for a couple of years now and he's a talent, coming into a form pack who fancy their chances," Rowntree responded. "And they have Alun Wyn Jones back in their second row at the same time: a Lions Test forward and a great resource."
After the cauliflower-eared scrum technician finished his eulogy, there was more of the same from one of his successors at the sharp end of the Leicester and England operations. When Dan Cole, the tight-head prop, was asked for a view on his opposite number, the hugely influential Adam Jones, he too flew in the face of front-row orthodoxy by talking up his opponent.
"Adam is a Test Lion for a reason," Cole said. "What makes him good? He's big, square, heavy and difficult to move. When he wins the engagement and goes forward, he's unstoppable. Even when he doesn't get the 'engage', he's strong enough to allow Wales to play off set-piece ball. There's no point turning up if you're not going to try to stop him, but this is a different challenge to anything we've faced so far in this championship."
England, who name their starting line-up tomorrow, seem certain to stick with Cole and his fellow front-rowers, the London Irish loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero and the Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley. There is no reason to think this trio will struggle at the scrum, despite Jones and his iron strength, but their duties will extend far beyond the grunt-and-groan routine. The line-out, an obvious area of potential advantage over Wales, has not been functioning smoothly, so much will depend on the accuracy of Hartley's throwing and the success of the props' hydraulic activities.
"We won nine of our 11 line-outs in Scotland and 14 out of 17 in Italy, with sleet all over the ball," Rowntree said. "But not all of that possession was clean. We're working on tempo and delivery because we'll need to be on top of things in that department."
Kidney opts for same again
The Ireland coach, Declan Kidney, yesterday named the team that would have started the frozen-off match in Paris to face Italy in Dublin on Saturday.
Kidney said: "We were tempted to make changes. We had a long discussion about it. But this team was good enough to play France so it's good enough to play Italy as well."
Ireland's captain, Paul O'Connell, said that while the 23-21 defeat by Wales on 5 February had been "frustrating", their subsequent enforced rest had let them "recover from bumps and bruises".
Martin PengellyReuse content