Mark Regan saw it as the "ultimate compliment", being booed off the Stade de France pitch by a crowd in full spleen-venting mode and then getting himself branded a "grotesque clown" by the Tricolore coach Marc Lièvremont. He might even, in his West Country salt-of-the-earth manner, have described the Parisian crowd as "bourgeois shits" had Lièvremont's predecessor, Bernard Laporte, not beaten him to it by the best part of a year. Regan is not so pleased with himself now, though. Not by a very long chalk.
Brian Ashton's decision to drop him from the starting line-up for this weekend's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Murrayfield – and deny him a seat on the bench for good measure – came as a shock of the most unpleasant variety. Ashton had defended the 36-year-old hooker to the hilt in the aftermath of the victory in the French capital 12 days ago, hailing him as an "outstanding international front-row forward", but there was little support for Regan once the squad regathered in Bath last weekend. Not because the coach shared Lièvremont's distaste for Regan's uniquely irritating modus operandi, but because he felt it was time to move on.
The new man is Lee Mears of Bath, who learnt a good deal from his rival during their shared days at the Recreation Ground without ever adopting the provocative style that drives certain opponents – Frenchmen and Australians, chiefly, together with the odd Springbok – into a blind fury. Mears is as quiet as Regan is noisy, and the uncomplaining dogsbody's role he performed at the recent World Cup, at which he was the third of three hookers, was entirely in character.
Yet John Wells, the England forwards coach, believes Mears did himself a significant amount of good during those seven weeks of near-invisibility. "Both Lee and Steve Borthwick [another Bath forward who found himself surplus to requirements last autumn] were in a frustrating position, yet their attitude was absolutely tremendous and it meant a lot to everyone involved," he said. "Since the World Cup, Lee has taken the opportunity created by the fact that George Chuter has been fighting for fitness. Now, he has the chance to go one step further and establish himself in the team."
Ashton has recently been heard to joke that "it is reassuring to have someone smaller than me actually out there playing", but Mears's vital statistics are not obviously a laughing matter. On Saturday, he will be at least a stone lighter, and some 14 inches shorter, than his direct opponent, the comparatively mountainous Edinburgh hooker, Ross Ford.
It is not, however, something that worries one of Mears' most enthusiastic champions, the former England head coach Andy Robinson. "If smaller people are to succeed in this sport, they have to be technically spot-on in every aspect of their game," said Robinson, who, ironically enough, now works with Ford at Edinburgh. "Lee has worked hard on this, and to my mind, he's a great example to every vertically challenged kid who's ever been told by a coach: 'No way, lad, you'll never be big enough'. His set-piece work is excellent, and when you count the times he snipes off his scrum-half or around the fringes of a ruck, you realise what a substantial contribution he makes."
Interestingly, Robinson does not buy the argument that Mears will be dislodged in short order by one of the two up-and-coming English – or rather, English-qualified – hookers: the Australian-born David Paice and the New Zealand-born Dylan Hartley. "It's one of those Neil Back situations," he said, referring to the World Cup-winning Leicester flanker. "Neil was in and out of the England side for years because he was judged to be too small, but when he finally secured his position through sheer self-belief and hard work... well, the rest is history. It's up to Lee now, but with the coaching staff behind him, he can play a long-term role."
If forces of nature and acts of God have railroaded Ashton into changing his side more quickly than he had intended, Lièvremont is carrying on in his own sweet way by tinkering at every turn. Three more debutants – Yann David, Fabien Barcella and Ibrahim Diarra – will announce themselves to the French public against Italy on Sunday. There will be another couple of new caps on the bench in the contrasting shapes of Julien Tomas and Guilhem Guirado.
"It's not an experimental team," insisted the coach, to the sound of jawbones smashing on the floor. "All the people we've picked deserve their selection."Reuse content