Graham Rowntree’s cauliflowered ears might look like they were created in a props department by the people who gave us The Hobbit but, battle-weary though they are, the most famous lugs in English rugby are in full working order.
All of the noise of the past week had him shaking his head at Twickenham yesterday. All the talk of English arrogance courtesy of Jim Telfer, has been listened to and dismissed as clichéd nonsense. England are not pretentious and condescending, he said. What they are is respectful and edgy.
Had Telfer fetched up here with a team of forensic experts he would not have been able to detect a scintilla of over- confidence from the England forwards coach or his captain, Chris Robshaw, who was sitting alongside him.
The pair of them could not have sounded more tuned-in to the threat coming at them today. Asked if Scotland, hurting from their travails against the Tongans, represented a giant danger, Rowntree nodded in agreement. “Massively,” he said. “I’m on edge about the game. Can’t you tell? I’ve had an edgy week. England have had a performance [victory over the All Blacks in November] that we have to back up but we have a team [Scotland] coming here with nothing to lose.”
This is a theme he revisited, this idea that Scotland are playing, in part, to restore some of the pride that was stripped from them at Pittodrie in the autumn. Scotland have been beaten up in the months since then. They’ve lost their coach, Andy Robinson, as a consequence of that farrago in Aberdeen. Some of them have admitted to guilt over Robinson’s demise. It is the mindset of wanting to atone for the failings in the past that makes Rowntree apprehensive about them now.
“There is nothing more daunting to me than a team with nothing to lose. They are what we were a year ago. They have interim coaches and no expectancy. We are very aware of that. I’ve got a lot of respect for Dean Ryan. It was a handful playing against him, that’s for sure. He’s an astute reader of the game. I’ve got a lot of time for him. He was a great pundit on Sky and I’m sure he’ll bring something different to that Scotland pack. So we’ve got to be ready for him. Certainly there is no arrogance or complacency in anything we have done.”
Rowntree wouldn’t bite. When he was challenged on his assertion that Scotland have “great players” he trotted out Kelly Brown, Alasdair Strokosch and Ryan Grant in reply. He sang the praises of Euan Murray as well. “Don’t ask me about the backs,” he said.
When put to him that the Scotland pack had been utterly pitiful in defeat against the Tongans in November he answered that he didn’t expect them to be that way at Twickenham.
“We would prefer pitiful but no doubt we’ll get the belligerent version,” he said. “They’ve got two new coaches there and I just look at that pack of forwards and there is enough class and experience there to cause anyone problems.”
Rowntree is a veteran of the Calcutta Cup with a playing record that is flawless. Played five, won five. His debut was against the Scots in 1995. He has battled against them on the field and has plotted against them as a coach. What poured out of him was respect and caution.
He pointed to the record books. Sure, England are dominant but look at how close these games are, he said. A seven-point winning margin in 2012, four points in it when they met at the World Cup, six points dividing the sides in the 2011 Six Nations and a 15-15 draw in the game before that.
In the last six Calcutta Cups, Scotland have scored only one try, though. It’s a shocking statistic. Rowntree said he doesn’t know much about the visiting backline but he feels that it carries more potential for menace than many of its predecessors. He referenced Tim Visser and Sean Maitland and the attacking nous they bring. Both of them have good memories of Twickenham, having scored twice here on their one and only visit, Visser for the Barbarians and Maitland for the Canterbury Crusaders in a Super Rugby game in 2011.
For their team-mates, though, Twickenham has been a place of infinite pain, 1983 being the last time Scotland won here. “I just hope it continues,” said Rowntree of that 30-year run of failure . “Why have they not won here in so long? I’ve no feeling on that. As a player and having coached against them, they are always very narrow games.”
In Edinburgh, perhaps. Not at Twickenham. In the last ten years Scotland have lost this away fixture by an average of almost 19 points. Not that Rowntree or Robshaw were of a mind to dwell on those numbers. Every game is different, they said. Rowntree repeated his mantra about always being wary of a team with nothing to lose.
“With Scott Johnson as the main man and big Dean as well, I think they’ll challenge us all over the field. You can’t bank on superiority in one area. Now you have to have everything covered. Scotland will challenge us all across the field.”
Nobody with a respect for money would back Scotland, not with their record at Twickenham and certainly not after England’s destruction of the All Blacks. That was an England that shook the ground under everybody’s feet, an England that we had not seen since Martin Johnson was in his pomp.
Owen Farrell orchestrated things beautifully at stand-off and all around him he had dangerous runners and a pack that was almost demonic in its intensity. They had a brutal physicality and a ruthless edge when converting their chances into tries. They don’t have Manu Tuilagi, but they’ve got Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester and, given that he’s being compared to some kind of glorious hybrid of Jerry Guscott and Will Greenwood, much is expected of him.
If the Kiwi-bashing England turns up then Scotland could have an horrendous experience. If. Rowntree preached caution. He said they stripped down that victory and, good as it was, there was enough in there that brought cause for concern. They’re improving, but they’re nowhere near where they want to be. One game doesn’t represent consistency. “That drives us on,” he said. That [search for] perfection.
“We’ve got a good culture and one of our bedrock statements is that we have to be hard to beat. We will challenge you in every area of the field. We have built on that but we are nowhere near where we can be. No-one knows that more than us. I am pleased how the last year has gone, but I want more.”
With all due respect to Telfer, this was not a man who could be accused of arrogance.
Robshaw, the same. He spoke about England’s propensity for starting slowly in Test matches or, as he put it: “Taking 20 minutes to warm up. From minute one we need to go out there. We’re not going to underestimate these guys at all.
“Dean Ryan knows every one of our players quite well. He commentates on the game and I think he may have been into the odd England camp when he was commentating for Sky. He knows us very well and I am sure they have a couple of tricks up their sleeve. For us, it’s about hitting the ground from minute one.”
The captain spoke of the honour of playing in the Calcutta Cup and the buzz of having 80,000 on your side. He mentioned the history of the match and how special it is. Robshaw looked relaxed but ready. Arrogant, he was not.
It’s all talk now anyway. The phoney war is over. The real deal is nigh.