Sport Rugby

Monday 20 November 2017

Battle lines redrawn for age-old neighbourly war

Warren Gatland has added spice to Wales v England, writes Eddie Butler

What Warren Gatland and Dylan Hartley think of each other adds deliciously to the soup of class, race, and wealth war that has raged since time immemorial in the build-up to the days -- and now the night -- when Wales play England at rugby.

And if you do not think there is a genuine antagonism surrounding the fixture, a history that stretches back more than 100 years, and from the cow country of New Zealand to the middle of Friday's front rows, then you must take your place behind the barricades that divide the sides in a war of artificial manufacture. For the next few days, whatever you think, you are going to have a row.

Before getting lost in the banter, though, may I make the suggestion that Scotland have a fair-to-firm chance of providing the shock of the championship by beating France on Saturday. They have not done that away since 1999, when they pinched the Five Nations title from under the noses of England, thanks to sweet victory for themselves in Paris and one of those English Grand Slam chokes, against Wales at Wembley.

And how might Scotland beat the defending Grand Slam champions? Well, it was clear from the shrug Marc Lievremont delivered at the Hurlingham Club in London last week at the launch of the Six Nations, when asked how his plans were all coming together. France's coach nodded in the direction of Martin Johnson and said that England were together for pre-tournament training in Portugal. He pointed towards Gatland, who could scramble his players at a moment's notice to the Vale of Glamorgan.

And then he asked Thierry Dusautoir what he was doing the next day. "I'm playing for my club against Montpellier," his captain said. Another shrug. "As long as we have a system like ours," Lievremont said, "to achieve consistency is . . . complicated."

While France are fractured, Scotland will be binding themselves together. They will be fuelling themselves on a record of failure, of being tipped in recent years and faltering, no setback more galling than defeat in Cardiff last year. It was stunning for both teams, but only for Scotland in that it sent them reeling.

They reacted by drawing against England and winning in Dublin. They then went on tour to Argentina and won both Tests there. They opened their autumn campaign by being spanked by New Zealand, but they were not alone in that and it served to prove how horribly difficult it is to open a campaign.

They responded with an inspired win over South Africa and something a little more workmanlike against Samoa. In short, Scotland have been heading purposefully towards this World Cup year. And victory over under-prepared France is not beyond them.

France could yet be the team who lead the European challenge in the World Cup. And to hit a peak in the New Zealand spring, it may not harm them to be rusty and slightly vulnerable now. The only drawback is a growing impatience with Lievremont's strategy.

Will he ever settle on a single selection and give it a chance to gel? He might retort that with props of the quality of Luc Ducalcon, Sylvain Marconnet, Thomas Domingo and Nicolas Mas, he can afford to have a little tinker with his combinations.

And he might suggest that he still needs to have a look at Maxime Mermoz, the Perpignan centre who oozes class on the few occasions he is free of injury. Maybe he will settle on David Marty and Yannick Jauzion in midfield. France do offer temptations to a tinkerman, so rich are their seams of talent.

Wales do not have the luxury of messing around with their front or any other row. The only name to prompt pause for thought before the teamsheet is handed in is that of James Hook. Where to play him: outhalf, centre, or full-back?

It is not the first time that the player who has just signed up to play inside, or maybe outside, or even behind, Mermoz at Perpignan, has been caught between positions. And even down in deepest Roussillon he may sometimes have to settle for the same place where he will perhaps start for Wales: the bench.

It all depends on how Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, both back after injury, are combining in that training environment denied to Lievremont. If Hook brings a certain subtlety and a surprisingly mean hand-off to any number of shirts, the other centres bring a rudimentary robustness that could answer all the questions Wales asked themselves in the autumn about finishing off promising moves. As in, would they ever do it?

The equations about two-on-ones and three-on-twos become a whole lot simpler with the return beyond the centres of Shane Williams. In the space he effortlessly opened up for Nikki Walker in the Ospreys' victory over Toulon was written a message: that's how it is done.

With Gavin Henson injured and, just as important, decommissioned as a question at press conferences, Gatland must have thought that he would be able to navigate the preamble to the all-defining opening game against England without disturbing his self-imposed vow not to stir things up. He had a habit of jabbing opponents with a pre-match stick, the only problem being that it tended to be turned on him post-match.

Not this time, when humdrum and noncommittal would define his every utterance. But then he lost Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins, the props underpinning Wales's growing repute up front, and a couple of valves in the coach's rig went. Lulled by what he thinks was boredom at yet another round of questions about -- yawn, oh, who cares? -- some steam escaped and with it a few snaps at Hartley, the hooker who had plenty to say for himself, the Northampton captain who had declined the invitation issued by his opposite number at the Cardiff Blues, Gareth Williams, to settle an on-field grapple in time-honoured fashion behind the stand at Franklin's Gardens.

More heinous still, according to the Welsh take on rugby justice, was Hartley's role as the bloke who grassed up Richie Rees, the scrumhalf who, after the Northampton v Blues Heineken Cup clash, had to stand trial -- and was banned -- for making contact with Hartley's eyes.

Obviously there is Hartley's version of all these episodes, a contrasting interpretation that may yet be thrown Gatland's way. For the moment that remains in storage in Portugal, but the steam has certainly added heat to a sporting event that on the advice of psychiatrists on both sides of Offa's Dyke more generally requires a balm to lower the temperature.

Martin Johnson said that obsessing on such matters could leave you with tunnel vision, and that England wanted to see more. Such as, who might play in the back row should Hendre Fourie's calf injury be more than a niggle. Is it time for the flanker Joe Worsley to be given one of those man-marking jobs, on Roberts, at which he excels?

That is precisely the sort of mundane question that got Warren Gatland into trouble and that has sent the needles on the gauges into the red zone.


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