The English nation needed a blunt, unadorned assertion that everything would be all right and those cauliflower ears – the product of 10 years in the Leicester front row – were not the only reason why Graham Rowntree was the man for the occasion.
His words lacked prettification, too. A few of them were choreographed – “power of the nation” and “our own Olympics” got the umpteenth mention of the last few weeks, suggesting that Rowntree, England’s scrum coach, had given his briefing notes a cursory glance. But he was mostly off the cuff and off-script, much as you would expect from an individual who spent much of his working life submitting himself to the dark arts of scrummaging. “I’ll go first,” Rowntree said to the opening question about an English advertising campaign’s mock haka which has supposedly upset the All Blacks – material to fill another interminable day of waiting for the World Cup to start. “I’ve no idea what you are talking about,” Rowntree said, deadpan; saying everything by offering nothing. “I’ve got no comment to make on that. I’ve not seen it.”
There was something hovering between a grin and grimace to the notion that Friday night’s opening ceremony might threaten England’s warm-ups. “A threat? We’ll still be warming up.” And to the idea that the beautiful spontaneity and acceleration brought by the players of the Fijian archipelago might create an “upset,” Rowntree offered a bald reminder of precisely who is about to be on the wrong end of the patriotism.
“There’s a lot of talk about this word ‘upset’,” Rowntree said. “Our guys are on their own turf, in front of their families, friends, 15 million people potentially watching on TV, 50 million countrywide supporting them. So, ‘Which team is the pressure on?’ is my question for you…”
The delicate part of the phoney war period for England has been how to find an expression of self-belief and national pride while avoiding what the former All Black lock Ali Williams was describing last week as priggish English self-importance. Thank God for Rowntree, and the way he refused to be tied up in the knots of diplomacy. He was only here by Buggins’ turn. His boss does not talk on the eve of a match. But that was a mercy, because this moment called for something more than the buttoned-up caution and pre-calculation of Stuart Lancaster.
Sir Clive Woodward observed in an excellent interview about the philosophy of World Cup success that spontaneity was needed on these occasions. “Help them to be interesting; to be themselves. Not to suck up. Not to be a yes man. Just to have something to say,” he observed, just when it seemed there was nothing left to say on 2003 and all that. England’s flanker Tom Wood belongs to the same school of plain talking, though his own call to arms was also crowded with insights into Lancaster’s hyper-detailed planning, which lies behind what we will see at Twickenham.
He described why “a few fire-ups in the gym” might form part of his own routine today. “Then, later on in the night you’ll get some sort of hormonal response – testosterone release to keep you alert,” he explained, a level of information which association football gatherings of this kind do not tend to extend to.
Wood related Lancaster’s recent attempts to calibrate the intensity of training so the players do not go off too early in the week and feel flat, come match day. That was one of the outcomes of the disappointing display against France a few weeks ago. And there has clearly been psychoanalytical assessment of what the squad and the “leadership group” know as “the sideshow” of media and external pressures which come with host status. There has been an attempt to predict and educate on what can happen “if you allow it into your head,” as Wood put it.
With this volume of rugby information teeming through his mind, it is gratifying to know Wood has put aside the book on the history of the British Empire which he had been reading in favour of Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher novels. “They’re a bit easier going,” he said, apologetically. “Anyone who knows much about me knows I’m into DIY and handiwork so generally I watch ‘how to’ videos and things like that…” There was a burst of spontaneous laughter across the room, then, and you saw why Wood – rather than the less forthcoming captain, Chris Robshaw – is being asked to talk before matches.
Wood felt the jolt of injustice four years ago when it was Martin Johnson’s obsession with Lewis Moody which reduced him to the margins; he was selected only once. Experience has taught him that a tournament is more than a script. “It won’t go entirely according to plan,” he admitted. “There’s no entitlement and no guarantee.”
He, like Rowntree, has given years of his life for this moment and is self-evidently not hiding from the fact that the journey could define him for all his days. “The emotion can get the better of you,” he reflected. “You can find yourself forcing things and getting carried away or you can be inspired to deliver the performance of your life.”
Outside, in the sunshine, the finishing touches were applied to the preparation of Twickenham for the global spotlight. Yes, it was a very good day for the best of Englishmen to speak.Reuse content