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James Lawton: A few humble words and hope is revived for the English game


One day of atonement at Twickenham was never going to wipe away the years of bombast and folly – there simply wasn't enough sackcloth or ashes to go around – but anyone who still cares about England's rugby now has some little reason for hope.

He might, for example, just risk believing that watching tomorrow's collision between Wales and Australia at the Millennium Stadium will give a little less of a sense that it is being witnessed, in all its vigour and optimism and safely gathered in professional values, from through the windows of a madhouse.

The classic competitive values of the Australians, twice world champions, and the verve of a young Welsh team which has so brilliantly re-established contact with some of the best of the nation's past, will not be easily conjured by any new England but it would be quite churlish not to recognise the achievement of Ian Metcalfe, chairman of the Professional Game Board, this week.

It was to reach out for something apparently utterly beyond the Rugby Football Union regime which has dragged England, with its vast playing population and in-built financial potential, into such a moribund condition.

What Metcalfe (above) displayed in a low-key but convincing way was that he might just have been touched by a breath of humility, an ability to look beyond all the denials of Twickenham and see recent events not as the random ambushes of happenstance but the corrosion that is made inevitable by years of neglect.

Nor did he come along with merely half a pocketful of contrite soundbites. A few decisions had been made, practical ones which make it all the easier for a significant coaching figure from the wider world of rugby to take the job without the fear of being sucked into one set of politics or another. Rob Andrew is appointed director of rugby but shunted comprehensively away from any involvement in the national team. This is entirely correct and, helpfully, is a swift response to the argument made by the favourite to succeed Martin Johnson, the experienced South African Nick Mallett.

Mallett scorned the idea of a director of rugby, as he suggested any rugby man of stature and self-belief would do.

What also must be expected of Twickenham are some clear signs that it is moving beyond its own absurd, even weird, vanities, some of which made such a travesty of judgements in the appalling Bloodgate affair, something so disgusting that had it happened in any other sport, it would have provoked not sickening evasions but revulsion.

We know well enough the lowest point of the palsied reaction to the signs that the England team in the World Cup had divested itself of serious professional values. That was the parting gift of former chief executive Martyn Thomas's re-instatement of Mike Tindall despite his betrayal of a career that might otherwise have been remembered with a notable degree of respect.

But there is encouragement to be drawn from the encounter in Cardiff tomorrow. Welsh rugby at one point was so far removed from its strongest roots that some feared the days of the great players could never be retrieved. Now, after the regimes of the World Cup-winning All Blacks Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, and the skill of current coach Warren Gatland, another Kiwi, the nation glories in the likes of Sam Warburton, Rhys Priestland, Leigh Halfpenny and George North.

It is a magnificent achievement and the good news for England is that it started not in grandeur but a redeeming touch of humility.