According to rugby orthodoxy, prop forwards are notoriously slow on the uptake.
Joe Marler, the England loose-head specialist, does not fit the stereotype – he is one of the sharper wits in the red-rose side, with a wide repertoire of one-line ripostes – but the fact remains that it took him almost an entire year to watch a rerun of last season’s Six Nations meeting with Wales in Cardiff.
“It was off-memory until last night,” he said yesterday. “I hadn’t even seen clips of it. So after returning from the cinema [August: Osage County] I decided to see what happened from start to finish, although I fast-tracked through the shots at goal because those are the boring bits. The scoreline was as I remembered it, but there were moments when I thought, ‘Actually, we’re in this game’. And then we weren’t in it. I hope it’s a bit different this time. I don’t think I’d enjoy a repeat experience.”
England’s problems at the Millennium Stadium that evening started at the scrum, although they did not end there. Marler was given the shepherd’s crook treatment shortly after the interval – “When you see a loose-head prop being substituted that early, it tells you something,” said his opposite number, Gethin Jenkins, shortly after the final whistle – and for that reason there will be a good deal of focus on his work at the set-piece tomorrow. Indeed, his individual contest with the wily old Lions Test tight-head Adam Jones is likely to be at least as significant as the personal duels between the back-rowers and the half-backs.
Props have long memories, and Marler would be a very unusual member of the front-row union if he was not itching to give Jones a taste of his own medicine. But tomorrow’s scrum contest will be entirely different from the one that unfolded last March, for two very good reasons. Firstly, the Australian official Steve Walsh will not be running the show, although he will be running the line; and secondly, the laws pertaining to the set-piece have changed, almost out of recognition.
“I think the changes have been good for me and good for the sport,” said Marler, referring to the abolition of the big-hit engagement in favour of something a little more gentle and a whole lot more technical. “I think those of us on the loose-head side got to grips with the new protocols more quickly than the tight-head props, although most of them have worked it out now.”
And the refereeing? How will Romain Poite, the French official renowned for his understanding of the art and science of scrummaging, influence proceedings at Twickenham? “For a front-rower, it’s always a pleasure when you have a quality referee who, more often than not, gets the calls right,” the Harlequins forward replied. “You don’t want people guessing and you don’t want loads of resets. You just want clear, accurate decision-making.”
According to Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, Marler’s contribution around the field has improved every bit as much as his work at the set-piece. England will need to see every bit of that improvement tomorrow, particularly in defence.
“Wales have a world-class pack, but they also have people in their back division who are bigger than our forwards,” Lancaster remarked.
It must be unnerving for a solid front-row citizen weighing well over 17st when he finds himself confronted by a wing or a centre constructed on the same generous scale. Marler will not beat George North or Jamie Roberts in a foot race, but in the dark alleys of ruck and maul, he will still be the guv’nor. Some things never change.Reuse content