David Flatman: Fired-up front three can handle weight of nation

View from the front row with Bath & England prop
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the Wallabies arrive at Twickenham to take on England next week, a few points of tradition will be challenged. Whatever the competition, year or venue, some things have always been assumed in the build-up to this most enticing of fixtures: England's scrum will annihilate the prop-weak Aussies; and the Wallaby back line will be too athletic, thick-thighed and naturally elusive for the straight-up-and-down English.

These days, however, things are somewhat different. While Ryan Cross, at outside centre, might be considered a strapping lad, he could probably fit quite comfortably into Matt Banahan's pocket, should the need arise. At 6ft 7in and 115kg, Banahan wins the prize for the most monstrous piece of meat on the field, but it is at inside centre where England will look to defy rugby legend.

Shane Geraghty has the poacher's eye combined with the swiftness of feet to cause Australia problems. With Jonny Wilkinson and Dan Hipkiss either side of him, incoming runners will be dropped like tranquilised buffalo and he will just have to concentrate on what he does best: threaten the defence. Those Wallaby forwards who find themselves defending in midfield will have their work cut out if England win clean ball and, after a few heavy scrummaging exchanges, those legs might not have the zip to cover a player like Geraghty.

This is not to say that the Wallaby scrum are expected to roll over and take the beating that everyone expects them to receive. In fact, in the last meeting of these two sides, the Aussies were given the decision on points while Andrew Sheridan and Co were widely harangued in the press. Of course, being an English prop, I could see that those blasted Aussie front-rowers were cheating from start to finish by setting too low and almost diving at the floor. This, you might think, is a suicidal approach but, in the words of the legendary Argentinian loosehead, Roberto Grau, "the ground is a prop's best friend – anywhere but backwards will do". (Somehow his accent and deep, guttural voice made this statement sound infinitely more heroic and full of wisdom than I can manage to portray. Do your best to feel the romance.)

The technique seemed to be "aim low and fire", with Sheridan at 6ft 4in and Vickery just an inch shorter. Make them hold us up and do not, under any circumstances, meet them at their desired height and turn it into a contest of strength; take their power away from them. It was a very defensive plan but it certainly worked.

Their approach, along with their personnel, has undergone a massive change since then. Benn Robinson, now a regular on the loosehead side, has emerged as probably the most destructive prop in international rugby over the last 12 months. A short, awkward cannonball of a prop, he has proved more than a handful for the very best tightheads in the world.

John Smit, the Springbok – admittedly a hooker by trade – was demolished by Robinson, while the extra large All Black Neemia Tialata never quite got to grips with him either. How he gets on against my Bath team-mate Davey Wilson will be interesting. I believe that Wilson's sheer bulk, strength and animal mindset will see him through in comfort and with another Bath boy, Duncan Bell, to potentially arrive with 20 minutes to go, Robinson might find he has a sore back come Sunday morning. Any inch gained by England, though, will be an inch hard-earned.

It is on the tighthead side where I fear for the Aussies' welfare. OK, fear might be a bit strong, mild worry is perhaps more honest. In Pek Cowan and Ben Alexander they have two props that they claim can "cover both sides". As any prop will tell you, "covering" is not enough at this level. Very, very few props can swap from one side to the other and be equally dominant and comfortable. Sylvain Marconnet, France's vastly experienced front-ranker, does a decent job as does Toulouse's Jean-Baptiste Poux, but even these two have been found out at international level.

Ask yourself, how often does one witness the great Carl Hayman or Julian White packing down at loosehead? Or All Black Tony Woodcock locking it down on the right? Never. To gain dominance, your tighthead must be a specialist and I think Tim Payne will look to target the man in the golden three early on.

So an interesting (for some, anyway) battle is on the cards and one that could heavily influence the outcome of the game. Australia have, in generations past, become used to finding ways to win Test matches without a scrum. If, however, they can come together in a routing of the odds, the confidence and encouragement they stand to gain might spur them on to insurmountable heights.

The scrum, after all, remains every bit as psychological as it is physical in its importance. So the weight of the nation falls on the broad shoulders of Messrs Payne, Wilson and Dylan Hartley as they set out to restore world order by sending Australia back from where they came.

A whole lotta shove but still one kick away from victory

Over time you work out ways of riding out a storm. Experience isn't a buzz word, it's vital, and the more our guys at Bath play together, the more they'll get it. Losing to Saracens yesterday hurt badly, but it was promising that we performed well under the adversity of so many players missing injured or with England. I felt we took a big step yesterday. Just not big enough.

The morning after a defeat the day before I cannot feel too generous towards Saracens. We prevented them scoring in the second half; unfortunately our chance to win was very difficult for Ryan Davis and he missed it. I wouldn't want to have been in his boots: a touchline kick under massive pressure. Blimey, though, it would have been good to have won this one.

There was one scrum in our 22 which might earn us a few pundits' plaudits. We had a young bloke on the tighthead, and with Saracens going round slapping each other on the backs before that, we had to stand up to them. My chat to Aaron Jarvis was, 'No technique, no calls – hammer it'. Good on him, he did it, and where there's that sort of spirit there's lots of hope.