David Flatman: Flawless display makes Hartley a happy hooker

From the Front Row: Gatland is forced to eat humble pie as England's No 2 easily handles pressure-cooker atmosphere

Friday night was a fittingly massive start to the Six Nations. A great stadium with a new-fangled roof, a crowd bumping with exuberance and one of rugby's oldest and most bitter rivalries relit. Imagine, then, the pressure felt by the players charged with doing the job as they sat alone in their hotel rooms after lights out in the days leading in. A wonderful and timeless honour yes, but an equally gargantuan responsibility for the blokes involved.

So, what a player doesn't really need as company in those reflective, dark hours is an extra dollop of pressure to add to the oppressive cocktail of excitement and apprehension. Enter Warren Gatland. The Welsh supremo went old school last week, tucking into England hooker Dylan Hartley's throwing-in at a press conference in a bid to climb into the Northampton man's mind. He will, no doubt, have watched Hartley misfire at Welford Road in the Aviva Premiership only weeks ago and seen an opening. With his words, he took it.

Well, England's line-out ran at 100 per cent. And with every clean take, the camera seemed to find a squirming Gatland in his lofty seat, powerless to prevent his humbling. This statistic will rightly earn Hartley a hearty pat on the back from Martin Johnson but, if we look a little more closely, there was more to it than just good chucking. You see, a hooker these days is told where to throw the ball; he has no say in the decision whatsoever. This may sound odd but it is true; one man – invariably a lighthouse from the second row – will do the homework, read the defence and make the calls. Tom Palmer is this man for England.

Tom Wood, outstanding on debut, was selected on general form but also, no doubt, because his height made him a real lineout option in the absence of Tom Croft. So why was he only used once? Well, just because he's there, doesn't mean we need to give it to him. His presence alone over, say, a Hendrie Fourie, would have forced the Welsh defence to mark him and this, naturally, creates space elsewhere. Wood was put at the back of the line-out and this is where, in an ideal world, all ball would be won as it gives the scrum-half the shortest possible pass to make and gives the opposing forwards further to run in order to realign in defence. However, the long, back ball is high risk and Palmer judged it as more important to win the thing with certainty than risk losing it for a marginal gain.

What he did was make the simplest of calls in a rare display of humility in power. He called a lot to himself which makes him sound selfish but, forget that, on Friday night it made him look intelligent and effective. With the Welshmen spread out and shrieking at one another to cover the myriad of options England might have run, Palmer simply leapt – on the spot or very near it – to meet a nicely-timed throw, often completely uncontested. The lifting was powerful, again made easier by the lack of contact and bumping on the way up, a luxury only enjoyed when a team jumps in space and before the opposition can cotton on.

Palmer mixed it up just enough by using the ever-effective Louis Deacon once or twice and, just the once, opting to throw long to Wood while in the Welsh 22. This, too, showed his perceptiveness. Yes it was the hardest throw but it was also close enough to the Welsh line that the chances of them competing fully were slim, due to the fact that they would have been terrified of being short of numbers during ensuing phases. Hartley nailed it and England rose alone.

So after all the talk, the man in the spotlight stood firm and produced a flawless display, with a bit of help from his friends. How glorious those little moments must have been for him as he listened, threw, hoped and watched as the men in red looked on otiosely at Palmer, Deacon and Wood, sealing with their very hands his emergence from international rugby's pressure cooker. There won't be any apologies, nor should there be. Whatever has gone on before the final whistle should be swallowed as it blows, but the next time their eyes meet, they will know. I wonder who will blink first. Tell you what; I now know where my money's going.

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