Build-up to the Six Nations starts here
September 23, 2009
Jason Leonard (left), Martin Johnson (centre) and Brian Moore (right) in action during an England training session at Richmond RFC in 1994 © Getty Images
Suddenly, the Lions tour seems a dim and distant memory, another Tri-Nations has come and gone. We are almost into October and the silly season with novelty matches at Twickenham and Wembley has given way to the real bump and grind of the Premiership and the Magners League.
Even Bloodgate and the other scandals of the summer are fading and thoughts are turning to the Autumn internationals. I spent Tuesday evening with Martin Johnson and Jason Leonard. Both were in philosophical mood - although Jason, the man who took the 'H' out of Harlequins, would claim he doesn't know what the word means.
There is no question Johnson is much more at ease with his England role. He was never as mono-syllabic as people liked to paint him in his early days as a captain but now he exudes assurance.
He chided me when I asked if he had taken any coaching exams over the summer. 'That's just the journalist coming out in you, I've got a great coaching team around me and I certainly have an input out on the practice field but it's my job to make sure we're going in the right direction and now I'm confident where we're heading.'
Jason believes Quins will survive Bloodgate but admits it has been bloody. 'There's a strange atmosphere at the club,' he concedes. 'It's a tough place to be because we know we have to take everything they want to throw at us. You just have to get your head down, take the stick, and get through it. We've had a difficult start to the season - what we have to do now is get a couple of wins under our belt and move on.'
Both feel for Dean Richards but are unsentimental. 'It was a bad mistake - there's always blood around rugby by the nature of the game and there are times when somebody takes a bang and you can use the fact that he's cut as well to give yourself time to assess the damage but this was taking it much too far - I have never ever seen blood capsules used before,' said Johnson emphatically.
He believes the England players are much fitter than when he took over and sees that as fundamental to restoring England's fortunes.
Both men played through the transition to professional rugby and Leonard recalled the shock when he first had to report to a dietician.
'I ticked most of the boxes when it came to eating,' he recalled. But there at the end was this question about alcohol intake. I lied, of course, but decided I might get away with 20 units. She (the dietician) told me that was too high and I should try to reduce it to 10 units a week - I thought I'd better not tell her I was talking about just Saturday night.'
'He's a wonderful player when his head is in the right place,' says Williams, 'right up there with Brian O'Driscoll and now Jamie Roberts as one of the very best centres in Britain and Ireland but his head is nowhere near in the right place at the moment.'
'We genuinely don't know whether he'll be back because he's not around, he's just not turning up to training,' adds Byrne.
Both paint a picture of a troubled insecure character. 'What he really needs most is a friendly arm round his shoulder and the chance to train and play out of the limelight,' says Byrne. 'He basically loves playing rugby but in Wales he's in a goldfish bowl and it's all become a bit too much for him.'
Neither appears very optimistic that he will conquer his demons and fulfil his potential.
The two players had very different Lions' tours. Byrne was in tremendous form for the first half of the trip and then dislocated his thumb in training and was on the way home before he could ask for a second opinion.
'They said I needed an operation and I was on a plane the next day. Ironically, when I got back they decided it was an old injury and there was no need to operate,' he says regretfully. 'It was a great tour and I'd have loved to be there with the boys to celebrate that last Test victory.'
Williams accepts that this was his last Lions Tour but hopes to keep going until the next Rugby World Cup. 'I genuinely thought every game I played could well be my last game for the Lions so it was very emotional for me,' he admits.
Leonard had mentioned the previous evening that after the 2005 tour to New Zealand he was sad to discover that a number of players had not enjoyed being part of the Lions. Williams admitted he had been one of them but had discovered the magic on this trip.
'It was largely down to Ian McGeechan, what a great coach,' says Williams.
'That's not what you said when you were crying on my bed after he didn't pick you for the first Test,' retorts Byrne.
English and Welsh agree that the Tri-Nations result shows how competitive the Lions were and all believe we are in for a very tight Six Nations.
It's good to be focusing on domestic rugby again!
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com