Six Nations: Weight of expectation sits on England
The Grand Slam is within reach but none of captain Robshaw's men is taking anything for granted. First they must beat Italy today before the Six Nations finale in Wales
Even if England's players were shunning any conversation about the Grand Slam – which, emphatically and quite sensibly, they are not – they cannot get away from it. In the room at the team's hotel in Surrey where guests use the internet and BBC Radio pipe their interviews to a waiting nation, a complete collection of programmes from the glory, glory Grand Slam of 2003 is framed on the wall.
It was a gift from the coach, Clive Woodward, to the hotel staff in May of that year, and it marked both the end of a frustrating era of near misses in the Six Nations' Championship and the realisation that the World Cup a few months later was an attainable target.
So here we are, 10 years on, with no English Slams in the meantime, but three to Wales, two to France and one to Ireland emphasising the comparative wilting of the Red Rose since Martin Johnson's mob carried all before them. Chris Robshaw's team are only three-fifths of the way through the 2013 Championship, but they could have the Grand prize signed, sealed and Slam dunked before your next Sunday-morning cornflakes with wins over Italy at Twickenham today and Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.
"I remember a Scottish team destroying England's hopes at foggy Murrayfield," said James Haskell when asked what Grand Slam meant to him, "and Will Carling running round with the fans after winning at Twickenham." That's 2000 and 1995 taken care of, then.
"For me it's the 2003 English team," said Tom Wood, the No 8. "As far as my memory goes, they were the best team England have fielded – I idolised [Neil] Back and [Lawrence] Dallaglio and [Richard] Hill growing up. It's been a long time since we've had [a Slam] and that's what we're looking to get back. That's the weight of expectation we have on us at the moment. We've got some work to do but it's a prospect we're really looking forward to challenging for."
Haskell said the phrase "Grand Slam" had not entered his own vocabulary, which was the loquacious Wasp's way of emphasising that engaging in chat about it does not mean the squad think it is in the bag. It is also a reflection of the different stage of development they feel themselves to be occupying compared to their predecessors.
Wood, the 26-year-old whose quiet transition to the base of the England scrum due to Ben Morgan's injury began with the last 30 minutes of the signal win over New Zealand last December, explained: "It's clearly an ambition of ours, but we're very much focusing on the process and the performance, not the end result. That's something we've talked about a lot. If we get too caught up in what might be and the final result we will come unstuck. We've got to focus on what gets us there, and that's beating Italy, and the work-ons we've carried on from the French game.
"It's the breakdown intensity we've got to get back, that we faltered on a bit: parking up at rucks and not blasting past the ball well enough, particularly in the first half. We did an exceptional job against New Zealand and Scotland [the first win of the 2013 Six Nations, followed by Ireland and France], and that's a real fundamental part in our game; we need that to launch our half-backs and the likes of Manu Tuilagi in midfield. And the set-piece stuttered a little against Ireland and France. The scrum creaked."
That is the opportunity knocking against the Italians: shoot for perfection and use that as a platform to leap the final hurdle in Cardiff in six days' time. The players said the turnaround time will require a minor hurry-up to their on-field training and video-suite analysis. There has been a degree of freshening up for today's team: Danny Care and Toby Flood in for Ben Youngs and the injured Owen Farrell as the half-backs (Farrell has a quad-muscle strain that is not guaranteed to heal this week); and Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola and James Haskell starting in place of Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler and Courtney Lawes respectively, with flanker Tom Croft and fly-half Freddie Burns on the bench.
The other notable factor is that a certain margin of victory this afternoon would as near as dammit guarantee England the Championship title on points difference even if they lose in Cardiff. Haskell said this had not been mentioned once in the England camp, but there might be a glance at the table this morning, or perhaps with 20 minutes to go if there is a gap growing against the Italians by then. Sergio Parisse – the kind of high-stepping, blast-making No. 8 that Wood, by his own admission, is not – and Haskell's Wasps club-mate Andrea Masi will work hard to make it otherwise.
England have blown Grand Slams at various venues: Stade Colombes (1954), Murrayfield (1990 and 2000), Wembley against Wales (1999) and Lansdowne Road (2001 and 2011). But they have neither won nor lost a Slam in Wales, mostly due to the fixture list very rarely sending them there for the final match. Whatever the Welsh is for schadenfreude, expect it to be cascading in bucketloads down the Millennium Stadium's steep stands if the Welsh deny the old enemy this time.
England 1 M Vunipola 2 T Youngs, 3 D Cole, 4 J Launchbury, 5 G Parling, 6 J Haskell, 7 C Robshaw (capt), 8 T Wood; 9 D Care, 10 T Flood; 11 M Brown, 12 B Barritt, 13 M Tuilagi, 14 C Ashton; 15 A Goode. Replacements 16 D Hartley, 17 D Wilson, 18 J Marler, 19 C Lawes, 20 T Croft, 21 B Youngs, 22 F Burns, 23 B Twelvetrees.
Italy 1 A De Marchi, 2 L Ghiraldini, 3 M Castrogiovanni, 4 Q Geldenhuys, 5 J Furno, 6 A Zanni, 7 R Barbieri, 8 S Parisse (capt); 9 E Gori, 10 L Orquera; 11 L McLean, 12 G Garcia, 13 G Canale, 14 G Venditti; 15 A Masi. Replacements 16 D Giazzon, 17 A Lo Cicero, 18 L Cittadini, 19 A Pavanello, 20 F Minto, 21 S Favaro, 22 T Botes, 23 T Benvenuti.
Referee G Clancy (Ire).
TV BBC1, HD.
English Slams since the war: Can they do it again?
Alan 'Ned' Ashcroft, No 8
Beat Wales (a) 3-0, Ireland (a) 6-0, France (h) 9-5, Scotland (h) 16-3
We'd have died a death if we'd have lost that last match, as Scotland were not the best team. Losing was against our religion; you couldn't ask for a better pack. People talk about defence now; well, my claim to fame was making every tackle, fanning across and cutting everything down. No one got past us, then we'd get the ball wide to Peter Jackson and Peter Thompson.
Slam this year? I expect them to do it, but you never know in rugby.
Bill Beaumont, lock
Beat Ireland (h) 24-9, France (a) 17-13, Wales (h) 9-8, Scotland (a) 30-18
You are remembered for Grand Slams, and captains are remembered forwinning them. But they need good men around them. I had Steve Smith at scrum-half and he'd often call the line-outs. In 2003 Martin Johnson had loads of experienced players around him. Chris Robshaw has been outstanding but he has his lieutenants to lean on.
Slam this year? Wales will be physical and many teams come back with tails between legs. But England can win it.
Peter Winterbottom, flanker
Beat Wales (a) 25-6, Scotland (h) 21-12, Ireland (a) 16-7, France (h) 21-19
The Grand Slam was the biggest thing that happened to me beyond a Lions tour or my first cap. This team has a collective spirit that reminds me of us in 1991 but it has a different source. Today they are young and setting out to achieve something big. A lot of us had been through lean times; we'd been bloody awful in the 1980s and had blown the Grand Slam in 1990.
Slam this year? If both teams play well in Cardiff, then England will win.
Wade Dooley, lock
Beat Scotland (a) 25-7, Ireland (h) 38-9, France (a) 31-13, Wales (h) 24-0
The final match was my 50th cap and I scored a try. We'd already wiped everybody out by big scores and were so confident after doing the Grand Slam the previous year. This team are like we were in 1989: building a young side, tinkering with positions. They need to work out the best combinations but it's good the way they're forming a squad, not just a team.
Slam this year? Yes, if they stick together and play the way they can.
Kyran Bracken, scrum-half
Beat: Ireland (a) 20-8, France (h) 31-10, Wales (a) 23-9, Scotland (h) 24-12
This team are mindful of what's going around of them, they're being very Middle England about it. They missed out in Ireland in 2011 but are much more streetwise and more organised now. We lost a few Slams in between 1995 and 2003, almost always away from Twickenham. That's why it's so tricky: there is no better bait for Wales than stopping England in Cardiff.
Slam this year? Yes, they have a good captain and competition for places.
Richard Hill, flanker
Beat: France (h) 25-17, Wales (a) 26-9, Italy (h) 40-5, Scotland (h) 40-9, Ireland (a) 42-6
We'd lost one match a year from 1996 to 2003 – and 1999/2000/2001 were all in the last games. So it was nice to get that nasty little tag of 'chokers' off us. But people cannot compare that England side with now; this team is in transformation. They have come far in the last 14 months with a simplified game plan.
Slam this year? England focus on the basics, but Wales play on confidence and they are at home.
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