Rugby Union: Why England need Ubogu

Chris Hewett says that problems in Clive Woodward's pack could be exposed by the Welsh for the first time in 10 years
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The Independent Online
A FEW minutes into the second half of England's opening World Cup pool match against New Zealand in 1991, the rival front rows pounded into each other for another set scrum. Graeme Bachop, the All Black scrum- half, placed the ball directly under the feet of Brian Moore, the English hooker, and snarled: "You can have that one if you want it, Mooro... but you can't move a bloody muscle, can you?" Indeed, he could not. The ball sat there like a poached egg until the black pack sauntered forwards and reclaimed possession, their exercise in psychological one-upmanship satisfyingly complete.

Now, it is almost acceptable for an English scrum to struggle against three coalface legends of the stature of Steve McDowell, Sean Fitzpatrick and Richard Loe, especially if the experience proves as salutary as it did seven years ago. Similarly, it is not quite the end of the world if two red rose props are shunted from pillar to post by Christian Califano and Franck Tournaire, as were Jason Leonard and Darren Garforth in Paris last weekend. Those Frenchies are a bit special, after all.

But what about next weekend, when an English unit unable to wrestle its way out of a wet paper bag locks antlers with the Welsh, who tend to feel about as comfortable at the set-piece as a Bedouin in a bobsleigh? Clive Woodward, the England coach, played his rugby as a pretty-boy centre rather than a knotted chunk of front-row gristle, but he knows full well that if his pack goes into reverse gear again on Saturday, his credibility will be dangerously weakened.

The Dragons have not enjoyed front-row parity with their nearest and dearest from the opposite bank of the Severn since they last won at Twickenham 10 years ago, but their current ball-playing trio of Andrew Lewis, Barry Williams and David Young quietly fancy their chances this time round. "We've got no hang-ups about Twickers," said Young this week. "We have the chance to put a smile on the face of Wales."

Like all good props, Young considers the scrummage to be the central dynamic in the psychological and tactical profile of an international match and while generations of heavily cauliflowered uglies have talked up the importance of their peculiar form of Saturday afternoon activity for the best part of a century, recent rule changes have made them more influential than ever before.

"The game has changed out of all recognition," said Young, the sole survivor of that 11-3 win in 1988 and a Lion for the second time last summer. "Modern kicking tactics are based around keeping the ball in play, so the balance has shifted away from the line-out and back towards the set-piece. More importantly still, back rows now have to stay bound until the ball is clear. That makes the scrum a prime attacking weapon.

"I'm not sure how good or bad the English front row is at the moment; certainly, I don't think it's a great idea to judge them on the evidence of Paris because the French had an awesome unit who happened to be on edge. But it was interesting that the English tight forwards struggled for Lions Test places in South Africa. They're all good players, of course, but it became clear over there that the rest of us had built them up and put them on a pedestal. We won't make that mistake again."

So how can Woodward best shore up his crumbling barricades and save himself the agony of watching Rob Howley, Arwel Thomas and Allan Bateman running quality first-phase possession to their heart's content? Simple. He should back his instincts, the first and foremost of which is to pick the players on form. And who is the form prop in England at the moment? Victor Ubogu of Bath, that's who.

"Big Dada" is back on his game with a vengeance at 33. Having belatedly realised that London's hectic night life can swing along without him for a year or two, he has moved back to the West Country, worked hard on his notoriously unreliable fitness levels and is performing with a devil-may- care swagger that marks him out as a force of rugby nature. His match- winning tries against Cardiff and Pau guided Bath to the Heineken Cup final and he was comfortably the most effective forward in a knife-edge confrontation with Brive a fortnight ago.

Woodward's reluctance to embrace the obvious is curious, to say the least; if, as seems likely, he is working on the logic that Ubogu's legs will not last until next year's World Cup, Jason Leonard's continued presence in the side is contradictory in the extreme. Ubogu is playing sharper, more rounded and more athletic rugby than any prop in England at present. That should be more than enough for a coach in urgent need of a "w" in the credit column.

It is not Woodward's fault that Kevin Yates, his outstanding loose-head prospect, has bitten off more than he can chew on the disciplinary front. "Poor old Kev," sighed Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, this week. "He'd be in the team now, no question. It's tailor-made for him. He's the best No 1 in the country by a distance." All the more reason for the England selectors to back their form horse on the other side of the front row.

They will also do themselves a favour if they resist the temptation to recall Richard Cockerill and stick with Mark Regan at hooker. Cockerill has cultivated quite an image for himself this season - an ersatz Brian Moore with added attitude, he had the brass neck to frazzle the super- cool All Blacks at Old Trafford by trespassing on their haka - but Regan is a heavier scrummager and a more physical presence at ruck and maul. Given England's current anxieties, they should grab every ounce of muscle they can lay their hands on.

Whatever combination Woodward comes up with this weekend, he must not on any account throw an exceptional talent like Phil Vickery to the wolves. The Gloucester tight-head may well be England's cornerstone come 1999 but as Ubogu demonstrated in the most graphic terms when the two of them met at the Recreation Ground on Wednesday night, old dogs are eminently capable of giving young pups the occasional hurry-up.