In the context of old-school Anglo-Welsh battles, England’s joint training session with Wales on a slippery surface at Clifton College in Bristol barely rated as a border skirmish. After 12 cagey scrums and 15 or so lineouts in front of dozens of excited schoolchildren, the respective packs returned to their buses and retreated briskly back to their man caves. “There wasn’t any live mauling because that could have kicked off a bit,” reported Wales’s Jake Ball, sounding slightly disappointed.
At least it gave England’s players the chance to try and do some homework on Ellis Genge, the combative Bristolian briefly back in his home city for work rather than pleasure. “We asked the schoolkids if they knew which postcode Gengie was from but no one had been to those parts,” joked Dan Cole, his Leicester team-mate and fellow prop. The up-and-coming Genge, England’s latest great white loosehead hope, grew up on the tough Knowle West estate, a world away from fashionable Clifton. It would have been a much livelier session had they visited the 22-year-old’s former stamping ground.
By Saturday evening, though, it may just be Genge whom people far beyond the West Country are discussing. With Joe Marler suspended and Matt Mullan injuredhe is certain to be involved in the matchday 23 and, as one of the form tight forwards in the Premiership, there is a good case for giving him a start against Argentina at Twickenham to show what he can do.
In the opinion of both Cole and England’s scrum coach, Neal Hatley, Genge will be a handful whenever he takes the field, his ball-handling aggression now backed up by an improved set-piece technique. “From a scrum point of view he’s come on immeasurably,” said Hatley, suggesting the bullocking newcomer could one day exert as big an impact on opponents as the quietly spoken giant Andrew Sheridan once did. “We’d like to think so. He’s 22 so the scope for improvement is massive. He’s got to keep his head down and keep working but he’s starting to understand how important the set-piece is. He’s got a real taste for that at the moment.”
Cole is also a fan, despite having to listen in to the ripe advice Genge likes to offer his opposite numbers during matches. “He plays on the edge but rarely goes over it,” said the experienced Tiger. “He brings physicality, he chats in scrums with the opposition, he is vocal around the field … that is his mentality and how he plays the game. If you look at when he came to Leicester, a year-and-a-bit ago, he was very raw. But playing week-in week-out has helped him make massive improvements and he’s come on this year.
“He’s always been able to carry and had that abrasive edge but he’s more controlled now in what he can do and how he can channel his physicality. A year ago, when he was called in against Australia, maybe he was in there on potential. Now I think he is here on merit because he is one of the top two or three looseheads in the country.”
If there is one country who traditionally relish testing out young opposition props it is Argentina, but England are not just seeking to mount a holding operation at set-piece. Going head to head with Wales, who face Australia on Saturday, reflects Eddie Jones’s desire to make his side the best scrummagers in the world, with Hatley and Cole both suggesting Jones’s call for a further 20% improvement is do-able. Hatley has already journeyed down to southern France to pick the tactical brain of the former French hooker Marc dal Maso, with the two men even packing down against each other in a Toulon hotel foyer to demonstrate an arcane trick or two.
Dal Maso has also been invited to Bagshot next week to cast his eye over the England forwards but is officially contracted for only three days per year to support Hatley. “We keep challenging the players to keep learning so it would be hypocritical of me if I don’t try and do something to improve my knowledge,” said the former London Irish prop. “I was scrummaging with him at 12.30am in the hotel foyer in Toulon. He’s that passionate about what he does.”
If only the serviceable underfoot conditions found in French hotels could be guaranteed in Bristol in November, with Cole confirming a heavy pitch had “unfortunately” given way beneath the combined weight of its temporary tenants. “Up to the point where you move your feet it was good,” suggested Cole, diplomatically scoring the session as “probably a draw”. On either side of the Severn Bridge they will be hoping for better this weekend.
*article taken from The Guardian*