A game crying out for style

Chris Rea feels that England's lack of ambition is a cause for concern
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I HAVE stood in some emotionally charged changing-rooms in my time - in 1971 after Scotland's first victory at Twickenham for 33 years and, in that same year, at Eden Park when the Lions became the first British side to win a series against the All Blacks. But never do I recall seeing so much as a tear roll down the craggy mud-stained cheeks of the players.

How very touching then to learn that those Englishmen who had taken part in last week's Calcutta Cup victory at Murrayfield - their seventh in a row against the Scots - should have burst out into an uncontrollable spate of collective weeping. We must assume that the tears were of joy and not frustration at what was, for the vast majority of those who had witnessed it, a thoroughly business-like but numbingly dull performance. Nevertheless how very gratifying for the Scots to know that England's success meant so much to them. Today Scotland, yesterday the world.

My beef is not that England won. Far from it. They were overwhelmingly the better side. It is simply that, in such a short time, their ambitions have plummeted so far. It is just seven months since they returned from the World Cup chastened in the knowledge that the game they were playing was hopelessly out of date and that, in terms of the world eminence to which they aspired, they were falling far short. The mood then was for change, the omens were encouraging, the incentives and the rewards in the fast lane of a rapidly changing game, were great. How then, in all conscience, can England's connections claim, as they are doing, that last Saturday's Five Nations' display represents progress towards that goal?

A few weeks ago the manager Jack Rowell was informing us that England would be prepared to sacrifice short-term success for long-term gain. But then if you were to lay all Jack's recent sayings end to end you would be hard-pressed to reach a conclusion. England are selling themselves and the game very short.

When Wales were in their pomp throughout the Seventies, their audacious innovation and creative brilliance forced the best out of their opponents. If you couldn't beat 'em - and let's face it very few could - at the very least you could try to join 'em. Wales set the standards for others to aim at and the peaks, despite being unattainable to so many, were sublimely high.

What Wales did for rugby then England are in a position to do 20 years on and it is a matter of great sadness that so far they have failed to respond to the challenge. They are, we are forever being told, a young and inexperienced side in a state of transition. Poppycock. When did you ever hear of a New Zealand side being in a state of transition? To say as much would be a damning admission of failure and that from a country with a fraction of the playing resources possessed by England.

And you can forget this diversionary talk of England being a young side. They are not. The average age is around 26, older than the All Blacks who went into the World Cup with youngsters like Glen Osborne, Jonah Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens and Josh Kronfeld. Not only did those players survive the ordeal, they won matches.

It is all about attitude and expectations. If Mehrtens is good enough to be selected for international rugby then he is old enough, but once he has won his place age does not come into it. There is no safety net of excuses on to which he can fall should he fail. But England, it seems, are no longer thinking in world terms. Last Saturday they were not even thinking in European terms, otherwise they would surely have been trying to close the points gap between themselves and France.

These are not the sentiments of embittered Celts as some half-baked English xenophobes are claiming. The consensus south of the border after last week's match was of satisfaction in the victory but intense disappointment in the manner of it. For those of us who are not rabid nationalists but who have a care for the game and its future, the sight of Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott blazing through the Scottish defence on the way to Guscott's try at Murrayfield six years ago is a treasured memory, as was so much of their rugby during that season.

What has happened in the intervening years should give us all in this country cause for the greatest concern and if next Saturday England run everything against Ireland, as surely they must if they are to win the championship, it will prove nothing. The only question the England players have to ask themselves once they have dried the Murrayfield moisture from their eyes is this - if everyone copied the style of rugby they employed to beat Scotland last week, what future would the game have?