The Gloucester centre Mike Tindall, a short-priced favourite to beat Nick Easter to the England captaincy against Wales on Friday, was back on the training field yesterday, as were the Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie and the Wasps lock Simon Shaw, neither of whom played an active part in last week's red-rose camp in Portugal.
"Both Mike and Hendre are fit for selection," confirmed Martin Johnson. "As for Simon, there was nothing wrong with him anyway. It's just that when you get to his age, there aren't that many good days."
This light-hearted remark was entirely in keeping with the manager's mood: not sunny, exactly – no one ever accused Johnson of that – but relaxed. He may have lost three of his quickest, most athletic forwards in Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft and Lewis Moody, and seen an entire line-out strategy go up in smoke as a result of their various orthopaedic concerns, but he did not have the look of a man struggling to get to sleep at night. "We know we must strike the right balance in the back five of the pack," he acknowledged, "but we have good choices available to us. The people we've brought into the squad give us all the options we need."
It was left to his close colleague Graham Rowntree, who brings so much more to the back-room operation than an acute appreciation of the scrummager's art, to sharpen things up a little. "What do I expect in Cardiff? I expect a storm," he said. "Wales are under pressure. I think the last week has shown us they're under pressure."
Having made this reference to the widely-publicised Welsh vilification of Dylan Hartley, the England hooker, Rowntree ventured boldly into "I've started, so I'll finish" territory by adding: "Dylan is the least of my worries. Is he aggressive? Yes. Can he keep his composure? Yes. He plays with passion but I have no concerns about him over-stepping the mark."
There are many who believe that the Hartley affair adds to the gaiety of the nation – or rather, the gaiety of the Six Nations – and it may well be that Johnson is among them. During his own playing days, he occupied the place in Welsh hearts that Hartley occupies now. Did it prey on his mind? Did it heck. Judging by the way he talked yesterday, he considered, and still considers, the high level of anti-English hostility generated by the Cardiff crowd to be one of the things that make rugby life worth living.
"This game isn't about me or my memories, but Cardiff has always been a great place to play, and playing there at the start of a Six Nations tournament in World Cup year adds something," he said. "England teams have never been the most popular down there, but that's fine: the trip to the stadium straight through the middle of town was one of the better bus journeys. I'd rather have hostility than polite indifference."
Johnson will name his side tomorrow. There is little doubt about the shape of the back division, still less about the make-up of the front row now that the Welsh obsession with Hartley has made him close to undroppable. The rest of the pack is an issue. Strong cases can be made on behalf of Shaw, Louis Deacon, James Haskell, Joe Worsley and the uncapped Northampton flanker Tom Wood, only two of whom are likely to start, but the manager says he will make his decisions for proactive reasons rather than reactive ones.
"We've probably been too reactive in the past," he admitted when asked to reflect on occasions when individuals were selected purely to stop opponents playing, rather than play themselves. "Now, we're more settled. We know our players and what they bring a little better than we did, largely because guys have come into the side and performed well. The exciting thing is that the youngsters in the team are not being picked because they're young, but because they're the best."
Meanwhile, the England prop Paul Doran-Jones will leave Gloucester at the end of the season after agreeing terms with Northampton.Reuse content