Andrew moving it on down the line

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: England's experienced No 10 is enjoying a new lease of life. David Llewellyn reports
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The buzz is that there is a new man at Number 10. Same face, same name but the talk in pubs, clubs and the media is that Rob Andrew has undergone a change for England. He is standing flatter and concentrating on getting his back line moving when he cannot find a way through the opposition. Gone is the percentage player, the kicker for position; enter the expansive attacking Wasp. The man himself is adamant this is not the case. After a lengthy wet-weather training session last Sunday in preparation for Saturday's meeting with France at Twickenham, Andrew, England's most capped stand-off, said: "There is nothing new. It's all a figment of everyone's imagination. I've always played this way. I've played like this for 10 years."

Certainly his club have seen that side of Andrew but it has not always been so obvious at the top level. And when pushed he admits: "It is probably right to say that even when we played with a reasonable amount of freedom, under Geoff Cooke, that I neverstood quite as flat as I do now."

But he still defends what went on before Jack Rowell took over as coach, and he explains: "There were occasions when we adopted a very different approach for very specific reasons, some to do with the opposition, some to do with the England team of the time and, especially in 1991 and 1992, I think the laws of the game had a lot to do with it. Then we played a very forward orientated game, the laws were in our favour and we had a pack who dominated things, while perhaps playing a restricted game, but itwas successful."

That is the key. It was successful. Then came South Africa last summer. England's assistant coach, Les Cusworth, the former Leicester stand-off who won a dozen caps for England between 1979 and 1988, admitted last summer's tour to South Africa rang the alarm bells.

"The game is far more dynamic," Cusworth explained. "These days you have to get the ball away faster and before contact. At England training sessions we concentrate on skills and drills. There is greater emphasis on positioning, standing flat, getting people over the gain line, because if you don't get players over the gain line in the modern game, particularly at the highest level, then you are dead."

The key player in all this ultimately is of course the No 10, and Andrew concurs with Cusworth. "It developed on the tour. As a whole back line we got ourselves a bit flatter," he said. "If you watched the games in South Africa, in the space of three or four matches you will have seen that we developed a new style. We get the backs across the gain line quicker and get the forwards back into the game more rapidly. We brought it back here and have been working on it since September."

It seems incredible that with 62 caps Andrew should be bothered, at this late stage in his career, to be working on new approaches and techniques. But he welcomes progress. "I have always felt that I can go on learning," he says. "The most interesting thing for me is how the game has moved on so significantly worldwide. The southern hemisphere sides have taken it on again. You only have to see last year's Bledisloe Cup between New Zealand and Australia to recognise that, and if we don't compete with that we will be blown away."

In fact Andrew has a dream. "There is a challenge to English rugby, to set standards not only for club rugby but also at international level. Why shouldn't England be leading the way in how to play the game?"

The changes to the game have brought one side effect for Andrew. "It is much more physical and far more skilful. There is more action, more movement. Quite frankly it is much more enjoyable.

"You come through an awful lot of pressure when you are picked as a young player to represent your country. You are desperate to keep your place, but having survived all the pressure you come out at the other end and think, `I want to enjoy this now'.

"I think there are an awful lot of people who do play better towards the end of their careers, not just because of the experience factor, which everyone keeps going on about, but also because you get to a point where you almost think, `Sod it. If they don't want me, well...'

"If England didn't pick me again I'd be disappointed. I love playing and whenever I pull on an England shirt I want to win, but I think I am just that little bit more relaxed. And that is the key. There are one or two people in the England side who are like that. Will [Carling] is more relaxed this season than he has been for some while and when you have key decision-makers relaxed it means the young guys can start to play off you.

"Les Cusworth played with a lot more freedom at the end of his career and I think there may be something of that in my game. I'd also like to think that these days there is an element of unpredictability to my game at the top level as well. That is something which the French fly-half, Christophe Deylaud, has. I played with him at Toulouse. He is a good player but unorthodox. And it is unpredictability which makes for a dangerous player."

So even after 10 years at the top, when Andrew should be thinking of retiring, he is talking of improving and he confesses: "I am enjoying my rugby at Wasps and for England more than ever. It is as if I have turned back the clock five or even 10 years, to the time I was playing for Yorkshire and the North, and playing with a lot of freedom. I don't really think about retiring. I am enjoying my rugby so much that to give up after the World Cup would be a very difficult thing to do."