Graham Rowntree, a former prop forward who has a jug where one ear should be and a cauliflower in place of the other, is fast becoming a talismanic figure for England as they close in on their World Cup semi-final with France in St-Denis on Saturday – a repeat of the 2003 tie, in which the Tricolores famously gave up 24 hours before kick-off after looking at the weather forecast and deciding they could not possibly beat Les Rosbifs in the wet.
Having played a significant part in preparing the English set-piece for last weekend's demolition of Australia in Marseilles, the recently retired Leicester front-rower materialised in the capital to strike the first blow of last-four week. The scrummaging coach won a toss of the coin that allowed England first choice of colours. The audience were on tenterhooks as he weighed the options before muttering: "We'll play in white." As the French play in blue, they were less than traumatised at this turn of events. However, the toss also gave the champions the choice of dressing-room – either "home" or "away". Will they have the brass neck to offend the hosts by moving into their own inner sanctum? We shall see.
On more serious matters, Rowntree assessed the challenge facing Andrew Sheridan, Phil Vickery and the other English scrummaging specialists. " The scrum will be a big focus again, if for slightly different reasons to last week," he said. "It's a greater challenge for us this time because the French set-piece means so much to them. You have to find ways of taking away their energy in that area." In other words, Olivier Milloud and Pieter de Villiers will pose a sterner test than Matt Dunning and Guy Sheperdson, neither of whom saw daylight during the quarter-final.
There again, the two first-choice English props are in fine fettle. Rowntree was justified in describing Vickery's performance against the Wallabies as his "best in years". And Sheridan, the form prop in the tournament? "He's a very strong man and extremely conscientious in his preparation," he said. "Is he the world's best? We'll see on Saturday night. The test of a great player is his ability to do it week in, week out. Physically, you need to be durable; mentally, you need that desire. If he can deliver a performance this weekend as he did last weekend, he'll bear the mark of someone very good."
Happily for Sheridan, not to mention true union aficianados the world over, the importance of the scrum will not be diminished when the International Rugby Board tweak the laws of the game some time next year. "There are moves to simplify things for players, for referees, for spectators," the board's chairman, Syd Millar, said yesterday. "But if you're asking if the scrum will be as central to the game as it is now, I'd say its importance will increase rather than decrease. We want a faster game, but we don't want basketball. If we adopt the adjustments currently under review, the scrum will be enhanced."
The IRB is on something of a roll. This tournament has been a wild success, with its 95 per cent attendances for games in France and its unprecedented dominance of the French television market. (The three biggest audiences for programmes of any description this year were for the broadcasts of the Tricolores' games with Argentina, Ireland and New Zealand). The money recently pumped into Pacific Islands rugby has borne fruit with the performances of Fiji and Tonga, and there is pressure being heaped on the three major southern hemisphere countries to give the Argentines a place in an expanded Tri-Nations Championship.
However, there are troubled times ahead. Millar did not rule out a trimming of the World Cup in time for New Zealand in 2011 – "There are options to consider," he said – and if the 20-team format is cut to 16, it will be a hellish job to strike a balance between competitive integrity and commercial imperatives. Mike Miller, the IRB's chief executive, suggested yesterday that with 12 automatic entrants, any qualifying tournament to identify the last four would have to be skewed to ensure an Asian presence – and, in all probability, a North American presence, too.
This will alarm the likes of Samoa, Georgia and Romania – better sides than Japan or the United States, but nowhere near as meaningful in financial terms. If the IRB has any sense, it will stick to 20 and save itself a public relations catastrophe.Reuse content