Andy Robinson may be under strict orders to head for the nearest Trappist monastery when confronted by the more sensitive issues facing the international rugby community - referees and eyesight being the most obvious examples - but England's head coach could not resist commenting on the most controversial subject of them all when he faced his public at the team's headquarters yesterday.
Andy Robinson may be under strict orders to head for the nearest Trappist monastery when confronted by the more sensitive issues facing the international rugby community - referees and eyesight being the most obvious examples - but England's head coach could not resist commenting on the most controversial subject of them all when he faced his public at the team's headquarters yesterday. Asked whether he was frustrated at the continuing difficulties over player access in an overcrowded season, he was at his loquacious best.
"Yes," he snapped. And after a few seconds of careful thought - presumably, he was estimating the potential scale of the donation he might be ordered to make to the International Rugby Board's tsunami appeal on being found guilty of speaking out of turn - he went even further. "The players from Gloucester and Bath haven't been able to train because of the intensity of Sunday's cup semi-final at Kingsholm," he explained. "I played in a couple of Bath-Gloucester knock-out derbies and I know how long it takes to recover, especially when they go into extra time. I've made my feelings known about Sunday rugby. We're trying to prepare an international team here, and it's bitterly frustrating when people can't train."
Having been rapped over the knuckles for criticising the performance of the South African official Jonathan Kaplan in the Six Nations match with Ireland in Dublin, and seen the Rugby Football Union's élite referee manager, Colin High, come within an ace of losing his job for calling Kaplan to account - it was also suggested to High that he might like to donate £1,000 to the IRB's charity coffers - these were brave words, especially as the semi-finals were shifted to the Sabbath so the tsunami fund-raiser at Twickenham could have a clear run.
If there is any justice in the world, Robinson will be applauded rather than vilified. Whatever the IRB, the RFU and the rest of rugby's alphabet soup thought of Robinson's handling of the Kaplan issue, they can have no serious argument with his sentiments this time. Sunday's semi-final was indeed an exhausting affair - seriously fit men like Danny Grewcock, Olly Barkley and Steve Borthwick looked like wraiths at the final whistle - and it is ludicrous to imagine they will recover in time to play a proper part in preparations for this weekend's match with Italy. The sooner the domestic season is restructured the better.
Robinson flatly rejected the suggestion that England expected to put 50-plus points on the bottom-placed Azzurri - "We've watched the tapes, and we know that if Italy had kicked their goals, their games so far would have gone to the wire," he protested - but, in reality, the world champions must win by 30 points minimum if they are to emerge from the fixture on the right side of the ledger. The coaches understand this better than anyone.
"I know it hurts the public when we lose, but it hurts us twice as much," Robinson said. "We're passionate about this team, and we believe in it. I think we moved forward against Ireland, even though we lost the game - Martin Corry and Lewis Moody were outstanding in Dublin, as was Matt Stevens, who came through well in all the areas his critics considered him to be suspect. This match against Italy is about taking another step up. It's about execution. If we get that right, we'll score tries."
Ireland, who will be one step away from a first Grand Slam in almost 60 years if they beat France at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, have been scoring quality tries all tournament, but they will face the Tricolores without one of their more sophisticated attacking weapons. Gordon D'Arcy, the Leinster centre, has been struggling with a hamstring injury since the opening victory over Italy and misses out again. With Shane Horgan also hors de combat, the Ulsterman from the western shires of England, Kevin Maggs, plays alongside Brian O'Driscoll.
The Irish will start as favourites, but they may run into a French side playing on raw emotion. Their captain, Fabien Pelous, will be making his 100th international appearance - only Jason Leonard, Philippe Sella, George Gregan and David Campese are in three figures at the moment - and the hugely respected lock from Toulouse will have his players eating out of his hand come the weekend.
"It's only a figure, really," Pelous said yesterday, clearly more interested in the spirit of the landmark rather than the fact of it. "I don't want to end my career like Jason, winning caps here and there as a replacement just to beat a record. His last 20 or so caps tarnished his reputation. That was a shame, because he had a magnificent career."
IRELAND v FRANCE TEAMS
(Lansdowne Road,Saturday, 1.30pm)
G Murphy (Leicester); G Dempsey (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), K Maggs (Ulster), D Hickie (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); R Corrigan (Leinster), S Byrne (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), J O'Connor (Wasps), A Foley (Munster).
Replacements: F Sheahan (Munster), M Horan (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), E Miller (Leinster), G Easterby (Leinster), D Humphreys (Ulster), G Duffy (Harlequins).
J Laharrague (Brive); C Heymans (Toulouse), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), L Valbon (Brive), C Dominici (Stade Français); Y Delaigue (Castres), D Yachvili (Biarritz); S Marconnet (Stade Français), S Bruno (Sale), N Mas (Perpignan), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), J Thion (Biarritz), S Betsen (Biarritz), Y Nyanga (Béziers), J Bonnaire (Bourgoin).
Replacements: W Servat (Toulouse), P de Villiers (Stade F), P Papé (Bourgoin), G Lamboley (Toulouse), P Mignoni (Clermont), F Michalak (Toulouse), B Baby (Toulouse).