He looked genuinely surprised – a mixture of alarm and bewilderment spreading across his bear-like face as the full implications of the information registered on his front-rower's mind. "Did he really say that?" asked Andrew Sheridan, after being told that his "intimidation levels" had been publicly questioned by Graham Rowntree, the England scrummaging coach. "I'd better have a word," he added, not unintimidatingly.
The outsized loose-head prop from Sale – "Big Ted", as he is popularly known – felt he played rather well against the Pacific Islanders at Twickenham last weekend. "The statistics say I made seven carries and 15 tackles," he announced, proudly. Fifteen tackles is indeed a high number for a specialist scrummager such as Sheridan who, while he has never professed to be a great student of the sport's history, is handily aware that when a player of Rowntree's vintage was taking his first steps in the game, 15 tackles a season would have been more common.
Unfortunately for Sheridan, the England hierarchy were keen to point out yesterday that the scrum, for so long a major weapon in the red-rose armoury, had been out of sorts against the tourists from the South Seas. "I suppose it was a little messy in that department," admitted the 18st 9lb forward, on due reflection. "But those islanders are big, heavy blokes – Cencus Johnston is probably the biggest prop I've ever faced – and when they smash into you at the set-piece, you know about it. In fact, you still know about it two days later. On the basis that I hadn't played for five and a half weeks, I was quite happy with the way things turned out."
Sheridan has been at the very heart of England's regular successes against the Wallabies in recent seasons. He made a horrible mess of their scrum at Twickenham in 2005, when Andy Robinson was national coach, and was similarly destructive in delivering a command performance at the 2007 World Cup, when his work in the tight allowed Brian Ashton's team to prevail in a quarter-final they had confidently been expected to lose.
Yet like most strong, silent types, he is reluctant to shout the odds ahead of this game – the first significant test of Martin Johnson's stewardship. "The Aussies will be mentally tough, as they are in all sports," he said. "We've had our good days against them in the scrum, but it doesn't automatically mean we'll have a good day this time. I consider the New Zealand set-piece to be the best in the world at the moment, and the Wallaby pack has gone pretty well against them lately. I don't think we go into this with any great psychological advantage. I think there's too much emphasis placed on the scrum, to be honest with you."
Not for the first time he will be up against Al Baxter, who rarely seems to emerge from an England-Australia fixture with his reputation intact, yet has won more than twice as many international caps as his tormentor-in-chief. Might Baxter attempt a little early point-scoring in an effort to bluff his way through the contest? "The Australians like a chat, don't they?" Sheridan replied. "I'm not sure if they'll target me. If they do – well, it's all part of the fun. I can live with it."
Merely living with it may not be enough for Rowntree. The coach does not want Sheridan to handle whatever is thrown at him; he wants him to do the throwing. Will Big Ted take the message on board and intimidate the hell out of the Wallabies? "Let's see what mood I'm in when I wake up on Saturday morning," he said. As if he didn't know already.Reuse content