David Flatman: OK, no Grewcocks. But don't write off this relentless pack
Botha and Palmer make this a difficult team to beat, let alone smash
Sunday 19 February 2012
With every win comes increased expectation. Of course, Stuart Lancaster and his England players would rather have it this way than the other, but that initial excitement we felt at what was still an unknown is receding and this group of youngsters are becoming a proper international team. And, inevitably, they are beginning to shoulder the angst and pressure that come with this newly forged status.
Wales will provide England with their sternest test to date. France in Paris may prove even more intense, but for now there is more than enough on English plates to keep eyes and minds centred on the job in hand.
The good news for England is that they arrive on the back of two seriously impressive wins – not necessarily because of the style, but because of the grit and stubborn refusal to quit.
But – and there is a but – Scotland and Italy were and are not genuine contenders for the Six Nations title. Scotland could and arguably should have beaten England but they didn't. The underdogs in white fought like banshees and dug out the result. Italy, all big, heavy, abrasive lumps, have not yet managed to outgrow their role as a potential banana skin in this the harshest of rugby environments.
Wales, on the other hand, land at HQ in search of the Triple Crown and with a monstrous amount of experience – more than 200 caps in the front row alone. This makes them clear favourites. Expect Warren Gatland to spend a good amount of time talking up English chances, but we know this game. What has surprised me, though, is Jonathan Davies's prediction that England will be ''smashed''. This I find a little silly.
More specifically, he sees the weakness as being the forward pack assembled by Lancaster, who Davies believes lack the ability to intimidate. Now I agree there is no Danny Grewcock in there, a man who struck the same kind of primal fear into opponents as Mike Tyson, but I really don't think that player exists any longer on the international stage. Despite being the ultimate as a professional and as a physical specimen, Grewcock proved to be – perhaps along with Bakkies Botha – the last of his kind.
What England have now is a different sort of animal. Mouritz Botha and Tom Palmer do not have anywhere near the experience of the men they will be facing, nor do they seem inclined to punch the nose off everyone in the wrong-coloured jersey. What they do is seek and destroy with a relentlessness that makes them hugely effective, as opposed to hugely visible. Their workrates, allied to the huge graft of the likes of Chris Robshaw and Tom Croft, make this a difficult team to overcome, let alone smash.
Dan Cole, England's hard- working, attention-avoiding cornerstone, may be a little less knuckle-happy than his tighthead predecessor and club team-mate Julian White, but he is no less valuable for it. Put simply, he is too good and too strong to be smashed by Gethin Jenkins or anyone else, so the propaganda starts to dissolve somewhat. And did you ever see Dylan Hartley bullied? Not quite.
I was interested in the way that Wales's captain, Sam Warburton, responded when asked his thoughts on Davies's provocative prediction. In an instant he dismissed it, rightly, and did his best to assure everybody that this England pack would be taken very seriously indeed.
I don't doubt that one bit. His mates in the front row haven't got where they are by underestimating anybody. But you see, the damage is done. These comments will be etched into the minds of those labelled inadequate.
Wales really ought to win – they are a wonderful, complete team. But in England they will find an adversary full of determination, replete with proven steel and now with one hell of a point to prove.
The old mind games – some things never change.
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