Top-level rugby pretty much starts and ends up front, irrespective of the things that go wrong out back. When Graham Rowntree, the England forwards coach, weighed up the prospects for Saturday's Calcutta Cup meeting with Scotland in Edinburgh in light of the team's narrow defeat in Paris four days ago, he was not so much blunt as brutal. "I'm not happy with the scrum," he said. "Again. I've been looking a lot at what happened against France and we can't have it." Somewhere in the red-rose camp, cauliflower ears are burning.
After all the talk of dodgy substitutions, unnecessarily risky bench configurations and naïve decision-making at half-back when easy points were on offer – allegations that have largely been rejected by the current England hierarchy, some of whom are more than a little exasperated at being publicly taken to task by members of previous hierarchies – Rowntree suggested that had the red-rose pack been more like their usual selves at the set-pieces, Gaël Fickou's wonderful finish three minutes from time might have been irrelevant.
"I was delighted with our intensity, but let's not get away from the fact that we lost a game we bloody well should have won," the former Leicester prop said before acknowledging that the props, including one of his successors in the Tigers' front row in Dan Cole, had some awkward moments in the scrum at Stade de France. "Dan put in a big shift over the full 80 minutes: the number of involvements was huge – he chased back, made tackles, carried the ball more than ever. But we shipped points at the scrum and it hurt us."
Rowntree was also unusually sharp on the subject of line-out throwing: a delicate skill that is still bedevilling Tom Youngs, another Leicester front-rower. Youngs was fragile in this area against the All Blacks before Christmas – indeed, England's chances of winning that tourniquet-tight contest with the world champions decreased the moment he replaced Dylan Hartley at hooker and started missing his jumpers – and there was another costly failure against France, where a heaven-sent attacking position was frittered away.
"That should have been the game for us and Tom knows it," said Rowntree. "Look, it's not always down to the hooker: against the All Blacks we were well marked at the line-out; in France the lifting of the jumper wasn't great. But what happened at the weekend was disappointing and he's still reeling."
One England hooker of recent vintage who rarely had an off-day with the "darts", Lee Mears, has been drafted in as a front-row technician by the Rugby Football Union on a consultancy basis and is now helping the elite squad. Mears, who retired last season, was hardly the biggest player on the planet but was unusually strong, both physically and in the skills department. Once the Six Nations is over, he will work on a bigger canvas with a variety of age-group teams.
"Lee was always excellent at passing on knowledge," Rowntree said, no doubt hoping that a subtle tweak here and there will enable the tight forwards to raise their game across the restart disciplines. They will certainly have to be on their mettle in Edinburgh, because the parlous state of the Murrayfield pitch and a desperate weather forecast will put a huge onus on security at scrum and line-out.
As the Scottish Rugby Union admitted midway through last month, what was once one of the finest playing surfaces in world rugby has fallen victim to a parasitic infection affecting the roots of recently reseeded grass.
In the short term, garlic is being used to eliminate the roundworms that have been identified as the cause of the problem, which rather begs the question of why the French, of all people, have not tried something similar in an effort to improve the equally poor pitch in Paris. In the long term, the governing body has decided that hybrid grass is the way forward for Murrayfield.
"There are difficulties of one sort or another at most venues – there aren't many perfect pitches around – so it's our job to handle it," Rowntree said, with the verbal equivalent of a shrug. "We train in imperfect conditions all the time: we have several different surfaces here in camp and that helps us prepare. We'll just have to get on with controlling what we can control."
England reported that Jonny May, the Gloucester wing who suffered a broken nose against France and lasted only a few minutes, was already back in full training. In light of this, the head coach Stuart Lancaster named an unchanged 23-man squad for the trip to the Scottish capital.Reuse content