Graham Rowntree is by no means certain what keeps him awake the longest: the distant memory of being the odd prop out when Clive Woodward finalised his England squad for the triumphant World Cup campaign in 2003, or the all too recent memory of watching his own lovingly prepared pack being reduced to its component parts by a rampant French unit in Paris last weekend. Either way, amnesia would be a godsend.
“We have just had a very stern review,” said Rowntree, who has been at the sharp end of the red-rose coaching set-up since 2007, initially as a specialist scrum technician before graduating to the wider role of forwards strategist. “I wasn’t satisfied with what we did against France last Saturday night, the players are angry with themselves and, yes, it was a jolt. It’s my job to address the technical issues. Without getting hysterical about things, we can’t have it happening again.”
Rowntree must find ways of shoring up a creaking scrum, repairing a malfunctioning line-out, ironing out some age-old problems at the tackle area – the art of securing quick ball remains a mystery to the England back-rowers – and restoring some old-fashioned blood and guts to the mix. And he has 10 days to do it, because if Ireland inflict a second successive warm-up defeat on the tournament hosts on 5 September, months and years of planning could be seriously undermined.
Rowntree argued that many of the sins committed by his forwards were the result of “overexuberance”. But if lavish levels of testosterone resulted in rash acts at the breakdown, the problems at scrum and line-out were down to shortcomings in technique in the first instance and dodgy decision-making in the second. Given that the England players have been in camp all summer, the set-piece misfires border on the unforgiveable.
There is little doubt that Jamie George, the Saracens hooker who patently should have been named in the original squad, has made the most of his belated call-up. His debut off the bench in Paris was highly encouraging and it will beggar belief if he is not included in the final 31-man party when the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, makes his call on Thursday.
“Jamie has been exceptional for us throughout the whole camp,” Rowntree said, “but you always measure how a player performs on the field. He came into a cauldron in Saturday night and did fantastically well.” As for the errant Dylan Hartley, who opened the door for George by staging a half-hearted assault on him during last season’s Premiership semi-final, the coach shrugged. “The whole Dylan scenario is done,” he commented. “He’s serving a ban. He’s not with us.”
Assuming the injury-prone prop Alex Corbisiero has been left to one side – while he is back in training after a bout of sciatica, his recovery may be too little, too late – the remaining issues up front surround the lock and No 8 positions. Both Dave Attwood and Nick Easter made a case for themselves in Paris and remain under consideration.
Rowntree acknowledged that Attwood’s ballast might be a valuable asset against the bigger sides in the tournament, although he was quick to add that the other second-row contenders were “not stick insects”, and agreed that Easter’s know-how, together with his desperation to feature in a third World Cup, had made life interesting in the back-row department.
Yet the most pressing concerns centre on collective form rather than individual selection. “The players don’t need us coaches to bash them over the head,” Rowntree said. “They know there are a lot of things we need to be doing better.” Is it fixable? “I have to believe that, don’t I?” he replied. “I’m a coach.”
Greig Laidlaw, the Gloucester scrum-half, will lead Scotland in the third of their warm-up fixtures, against Italy at Murrayfield on Saturday. Two players yet to feature, the lock Jonny Gray and the back-rower Ryan Wilson, are also included in a 25-man squad.Reuse content