January 31, 2007
The fortunes of the England RU team have enjoyed such a sea change in recent days and weeks that the gloomy predictions following the disastrous Autumn International series need to be re-visited.
That is the view of former England prop Jason Leonard OBE, who was completely up-beat about England's chances against Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday (Feb 3, 2007) when he spoke about the match during a visit to Liverpool yesterday.
A member of England's World Cup winning team and the holder of a record 114 caps for his country, Leonard was on duty at the opposite end of the rugby ladder when he delivered his optimistic assessment of the Calcutta Cup match prospects while working with a group of schoolchildren in Liverpool city centre.
He was with the Merseyside RFU Development team taking part in one of a series of events in the SEE U @ RUG B programme, a joint initiative between Royal & SunAlliance (R&SA) and the RFU to take the game to more communities.
"I think we'll beat Scotland," he said. "From the Scotland point of view, missing someone like Jason White is a massive blow. His absence is like us losing Martin Johnson.
"England appear to have come out of the other side of the tunnel. There weren't many positives to come out of the Autumn games, but now, all of a sudden, we've got �Wilko' and Phil Vickery back. We've got Jason Robinson back from retirement; Andy Farrell playing again; Mike Tindall back in top form. And look at Martin Corry's performance for Leicester against Munster and Joe Worsley's for Wasps against Castres.
"So from only a couple of months ago, when you couldn't see any positives, now we're looking at the shape of things and thinking �Yes, that's good, that's good, that's good.
"We have people coming into the backs who are experienced and playing well, while up front, we have a typical England pack. They're big, hard and aggressive with the right mix of players.
"I can't wait to see how Magnus Lund goes on the open side - he must have been playing some great games for Sale to keep out Tom Rees, who has been in tremendous form. Corry and Worsley select themselves and you're always going to have Danny Grewcock coming back, although here again. Tom Palmer has been a bit unlucky. He's played some great games for Wasps.
"The front-row is pretty much what we'd expected. With Steve Thompson and Lee Mears ruled out, George Chuter has come in and he lever lets anyone down. Perry Freshwater is the type of player Brian Ashton wants - mobile, good hands - while Phil Vickery returns to complete a solid unit.
"I also think the fact that Scotland not winning at Twickenham for 24 will help us. They'll be under a lot of pressure and I don't think they can do it - it's just too much."
"So from the gloom of November, I'm very optimistic. We ought to beat Scotland and Italy at home and while there are tough games in Wales and Ireland, if we get a good start, who knows? The way things have changed in the last couple of weeks, I'm really looking forward to it again."
Not that his continued involvement in the game centres on the elite end of the business.
"The idea of today's initiative in Liverpool, a venture supported by the RFU and the Royal & SunAlliance, is to build for the future and introduce kids to a great sport." he says. "You never know - there may be some future England internationals waiting to be unearthed in Liverpool. These rough diamonds could become future Jonny Wilkinsons, Martin Johnsons - or dare I say it Jason Leonards.
"Having won the World Cup more children are playing the game - but we still need to get more of them interested."