With Stuart Lancaster naming his World Cup training squad yesterday, one of those on the selection panel was the inimitable Graham Rowntree.
An uncompromising player in his pomp and at the relatively early stage of his coaching career – his CV is already bulging.
On a drizzly November night in 2013 having watched Rowntree deliver a scrummaging session to Sussex’s coaches, I sat down with the great man they call Wig to chat about the front row, the state of European rugby, the Lions and England.
As we talked, the scrum laws had only recently been changed, leaving the crouch-touch-pause-engage days behind, England had just finished their Autumn campaign where they beat Australia and Argentina and lost to the All Blacks, the future of the Heineken Cup – as it was then known – was anyone’s guess and he was still glowing from a victorious Lions tour to Australia.
So, Graham, you’re down here coaching the scrum to the local coaches. How important do you think coaches are to the development of young players?
Well, the Sussex constituency body put together a programme to try and produce some Scrum Champions.
To try and get coaches up to Scrum Champion standard and champion the safe delivery of the scrum.
All I want from my end of the game is proactive scrummaging, so the earlier they’re doing it and the more people in the game that are doing it – the better for us. We want a safe, deliverable scrum that everyone enjoys seeing and not scrums on the floor or people getting injuries.
Looking at Sussex generally, there isn’t a big club down here, but there is the boost of World Cup Rugby coming to Brighton. What do you think that will bring to the county?
I think that’s fantastic news that we’re spreading the word.
We’re playing some of our games at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, so it’s great that we’re able to spread not only the word but our coaching philosophy from the England team.
We talk about England collected through our age grades and into professional and amateur rugby.
We’ve got the same coaching philosophy and that’s just safe coaching.
The further down that scale the better.
We’ve had a couple of months of the new scrum laws, what do you make of them?
It’s taken a while for people to get used to it and get their heads around it.
That’s us as coaches, players and referees.
I like them because we’re getting more playable scrums, and whereas before on the old engagement a weaker scrum, or indeed a pack that didn’t want to scrum, would collapse.
They can’t do that now, or if they do it now, it’s very obvious it’s them. It’s made it very technical, it’s brought hooking back, and I’m just a big fan.
The guys I work with have got their heads around it big-time.
As a Welshman, I’ve followed the progress of Adam Jones over the last decade or so and how pivotal he’s been for the national team, we’re starting to see the same thing with Alex Corbisiero, so how important are props to international and club teams now in the modern game?
It’s hugely important that we have players like Corbs and Adam Jones leading the way in terms of pro-active scrummaging and showing people “this is how you do it safely”.
That’s what they’re taught to do, and I should know because I’ve coached the pair of them.
That’s then fed down to their clubs and I spoke today with Alex Corbisiero’s club coach, we’re always talking to coaches and we’re all reading off the same page.
When I turned up to my first rugby session, my old man – who was a hooker himself – said to the coach, “He can play anywhere but not the front row.” Does it take a special type of character to pack down in the front row?
Yes it does.
I loved it because it was another battle in the war of a game. You’re face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder with your opposition and I love that combat.
You don’t get that in any other position in the game.
The scrum is an integral part of game and we have to look after it.
We’ve had to improve it because it was getting a bit of a shambles, but the product that’s on the field at the moment – I like it.
Do you miss it?
Not at all.
I don’t miss playing, but I’ve taken on that next step from playing and I’m a coach.
That gives me an incredible fulfilment in seeing things done well by my players.
Nothing could have given you much more fulfilment than a winning Lions series, just take us back to that.
It was an unbelievably tough experience.
It’s a big ask to go over there at the wrong end of your season with a new group of players.
The travelling is the hardest part of it. You’re playing two games a week.
Nobody does that at all any more in the modern game.
We’ve got a three-test tour in New Zealand next summer, and we’re there for four weeks.
With the Lions, you’re travelling twice a week and it’s hard on the players having to move all the time.
Then to lose the second test was a challenge, but to play your best rugby in the third test when the Lions were absolutely knackered – it was a very special day.
Talking of that third test, there was a real turn in the scrum and Alex Corbisiero was central to that. There was a Northern Hemisphere referee – is there anything in that? Is there a North-South split when it comes to officials?
Rowntree flashed me a mischievous glare, glanced at my dictaphone, and winked – read into that what you will.
Romain [Poite – the French referee in charge of the third test] likes the scrum and is very knowledgeable in that area, but I think we did a better job of showing our ascendency than we had done previously.
The onus is on us, not the referee, to put a better scrum on the park.
And how do you recap on England’s international campaign this Autumn?
Effort-wise, 10 out of 10. I’m sick of saying we’re still learning, but we are.
The pleasing thing was that we got some more players come through with the likes of Billy Vunipola.
I was dead pleased with how Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury went as a young second row partnership and it was good to see Joe Marler back in the one shirt and playing well.
So we’ve tested our squad depth and went toe-to-toe with the world champions for the majority of that game, beaten Australia and a very tough Argentinean team, so we’re going in the right direction.
Two years out from a World Cup, but we’ve still got significant lessons to learn before our first Six Nations game away against France.
So you’ll be jumping back into the club game now, as far as the European game goes – we’re in a bit of a mess. What do you, as an international coach, want to see come of this saga?
Listen, I’m not going to dwell on that too much.
But I do want our players playing in the toughest competition possible.
When they’re not playing for us, we want them playing at the highest level.
And apart from delivering these sessions, outside of the international block, what is your day-to-day routine?
I go around the clubs speaking with coaches and players, talking to our lads and their coaches about their games and just watching a lot of rugby.
Keeping abreast of selection and also getting stuck in with the age groups like the Under-18s and Under-20s to see what’s coming through as well because we want to put things in place for 2019, not just 2015.
So it’s a busy time. — Plenty has changed in the 18 months that’s transpired.
The European game is in – some might say – its most stable state despite a complete French dominance.
The players he was happy with as emergers in his England team have become mainstays.
The scrum has slipped back into the newspaper columns for the wrong reasons and, sadly, Alex Corbisiero’s injuries have robbed him from a lighting up the front row and Adam Jones’ demise has seen him drop off the international scene.
One thing, however, remains a constant.
Graham Rowntree is still one of, if not the, best scrummaging coach in the world.
If you want a safe bet, shake your piggy banks and shove whatever comes out on the ex-Leicester man being involved in the coaching set-up of the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand.
If there’s any chance of completing mission impossible in the Land of the Long White Cloud, we’ll need him and his scrum on top form.