Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, has seen too many things go horribly wrong on the last day of a Six Nations campaign to view this weekend's trip to Rome as anything other than an accident waiting to happen. Dublin in 2011, Cardiff in 2013… those bitter disappointments have not been, and may never be, truly forgotten. Hence the old Leicester front-rower's determination to keep his players honest ahead of their meeting with the Italians, who will not be found wanting in the motivation department.
"When I look at this England side, do I see a world-class team? No I don't," he said, 48 hours after a victory over Wales that not only kept the red-rose army in the hunt for this season's title, but laid some of the necessary foundations for a meaningful assault on a far bigger prize in 18 months' time – namely, the World Cup.
"What I do see is a world-class attitude. The players are incredibly keen: willing to learn, happy to take criticism. We've just reviewed the performance against Wales and it's clear there are still things that need working on. We have to keep pushing these blokes and driving the standards because at the moment, we're not hitting the ceiling of our game with any consistency. I'm not playing anything down. It's just that there are so many areas for improvements to be made."
If this was a harsh assessment, the selection meeting was no less brutal. Alex Goode, the ultra-sophisticated full-back from Saracens, did nothing wrong against Wales – truth to tell, he was not on the field long enough to do much right, either – but he has lost his place in the squad for the championship finale. The Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, a single club game into his comeback after six months of injury hassle, has elbowed him aside and will provide cover for both wing positions, as well as the midfield.
"This is nothing against Alex," said Rowntree, "and it was a difficult conversation to have with him, but Manu is a British Lion, a class player and a wrecking ball for us." Would he describe Tuilagi as "hungry" for a return to international rugby after his extended break? "He's always hungry," replied the coach, with a smile.
Meanwhile, the International Rugby Board will soon receive a missive from the Wales hierarchy, who were none too happy with the way Romain Poite, the French referee, controlled the scrum contest at Twickenham.
"I'm not concerned with our scrum; I'm concerned that we've fallen the wrong side of M Poite," said Robin McBryde, the fallen champions' set-piece strategist, who intends to question the sin-binning of the long-serving prop Gethin Jenkins. "I'll be sending an email to both Romain and Joël Jutge [the governing body's referee manager] because it's important that we're looking at the same things."
A year ago, Rowntree could be heard saying something very similar after England were whistled clean out of the Millennium Stadium by the Australian official Steve Walsh. Oh, the irony of it.Reuse content