Weekend Interview: England’s belief will help earn grand slam, insists Tom Palmer

ON THE UP: Former Leeds star Tom Palmer, seen in line-out action for Benetton Treviso, believes Englands Maro Itoje, inset, has a promising career ahead of him if he can stay fit, but thats the thing now  the game is so physical. Pictures: Marco Sartori.
ON THE UP: Former Leeds star Tom Palmer, seen in line-out action for Benetton Treviso, believes Englands Maro Itoje, inset, has a promising career ahead of him if he can stay fit, but thats the thing now  the game is so physical. Pictures: Marco Sartori.
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AS SOMEONE who knows French rugby first hand, Tom Palmer is a fine sounding board when it comes to assessing whether England’s Grand Slam hopes will end positively in Paris this evening.

That the former Leeds Tykes lock, who played at Stade Francais for three years and was actually married in the French capital, is utterly adamant England will win should give all those supporters fearing the worst a little comfort ahead of the Six Nations climax.

Tom Palmer believes Englands Maro Itoje, above right, has a promising career ahead of him if he can stay fit.'

Tom Palmer believes Englands Maro Itoje, above right, has a promising career ahead of him if he can stay fit.'

They have, of course, been in this position before and failed.

Indeed, Palmer was in the national side himself when they had an opportunity to complete the grand slam in Dublin in 2011 only to be blown away by Ireland, something which occurred again in even more emphatic style two years later, the Welsh then inflicting the mortal blow at Cardiff.

However, the experienced second-row – he turns 37 a week tomorrow and is currently continuing his continental, peripatetic odyssey with Benetton Treviso in Italy – believes this situation is different.

“England look really quite impressive,” Palmer told The Yorkshire Post, as the newly-installed Six Nations champions seek to claim a first clean sweep since 2003.

“They should win and I think they will win. It’s not presumptuous at all that people do reckon they should do it this time.

“Not only are England playing well, France don’t look like they are organised or know what they’re supposed to be doing, or even trying to do.

“They have a lot of big players but don’t play as a team; England have plenty of talented players and have more structure and belief.”

So, a first grand slam since the spring of their famous World Club dawns then.

But what of Les Bleus? It is often mused that France’s gifted but inconsistent players have too much of the laissez faire about them ever truly to dominate on either the European or global stage.

Palmer, who was a European Challenge Cup finalist with Stade in 2011 the year before he re-joined Wasps, takes a different view.

“I don’t think it’s the mentality of the players; France have just consistently picked poor coaches recently for the national team,” he offered.

“Guy Noves had a great record with Toulouse when they had all the money and the best players.

“But in the last five years Clermont, Stade, Racing Metro and teams like that have advanced and they’re now the leading teams.

“But they picked a guy (Noves) who is doing what he’s been doing for the last 20 years so it should be no surprise.

“France should have gone for someone like (former Wasps team-mate) Raphael Ibanez who has done such a great job with Bordeaux. He got them promoted into the Top 14 and they have gradually worked their way up that division. They’re fourth now.

“He’s played in France and in England, knows all about big, pressure environments and, while they don’t have as much money as others, Bordeaux are competing with all those big names.

“Ibanez brought Joe Worsley in as defence coach, too, and he’s just the sort of man that France should have appointed.”

That is the French conundrum sorted, then, so what does he make of England’s current chief, Eddie Jones, the man who stands on the verge of greatness, just a few months after taking over from the chastised Stuart Lancaster following the hosts’ abject World Cup failure?

Palmer, who knows Lancaster having worked with him at Headingley and again for his country in 2012, is certainly a fan of the Australian’s approach.

“The way England are playing is down to Eddie Jones,” he said.

“He’s made some brave choices with his selections, but they have really paid off.

“He picked Maro Itoje when the safe thing to do would have been to stick with Geoff Parling, Courtney Lawes or Joe Launchbury – tried and trusted players – but he’s come in and been excellent.

“As a fresh coach it does make it easier to make changes like that, but he’s still had to do it.

“It’s the same with James Haskell at seven. He’s been really good there and the back-row as a whole looks better, but the previous regime probably would not have done that.

“England will have seen how Japan played under Jones at the World Cup – a real attacking brand of rugby where he over-achieved with the players he had – and now he has got that depth of playing resources and talent with England, he is using it wisely.”

A big talking point ahead of tonight’s game is undoubtedly the emergence of Itoje, the athletic Saracens lock who just four games into his international career is already being tipped as a future England captain and, dare it be said, the next Martin Johnson.

As a fellow lock, Palmer is well-placed to appraise the impressive 21-year-old who debuted off the bench in England’s second Six Nations game in Rome, but has advanced so swiftly that he has started the last two fixtures and was a stand-out man of the match in the crucial Triple Crown win over Wales a week ago.

“It’s difficult to say how good he could be,” said Palmer, still the Tykes’ – or Yorkshire Carnegie as they are now known – second longest-serving player with 190 games.

“I mean they said I’d be the next Martin Johnson when I first came on the England scene and that never quite worked out.

“But he does look really good and has all the attributes.

“In terms of his set-piece work, he’s not that heavy so he gets up high in the line-out – George Kruis is the same – and wins his own ball, but disrupts the opposition’s too.

“But he does all his defensive work like any good second-row, carries the ball hard and has good hands as he showed in setting up Anthony Watson’s try last week, but he’s good on the floor too when getting turnovers. He’s a great player to have in there. If he can stay fit, he’ll have a fantastic career but that’s the thing now – the game is so physical.

“It will be hard now to have as long a career as someone like me. People my age – 36 – are just retiring, but players coming through at the moment are getting more and more injuries as the game has got so hard.”

Palmer’s own playing future remains opaque; the forward, who won 42 caps between 2001 and 2012, is unsure whether he will carry on beyond this season.

He moved to Italy last summer after an enjoyable campaign with Gloucester and said: “Like when living in Paris, I’ve really enjoyed the new culture, learning a new language and things like that.”