Artistry losing in power struggle

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There is an aspect of rugby that seems to have gone out of fashion. It does not appear to figure very much in the minds of coaches or, for that matter, the public. What I have in mind is artistry.

The buzz words today are efficiency and organisation. Only admiration can be held for the effort England put in against France, their purpose quite inspiring, but even allowing for the initiative that brought three tries, victory was achieved mainly through forward domination. The expansion England's coach, Jack Rowell, has promised was never really in evidence.

Rowell insisted that this remains on the agenda, however he could not fail to conceal the impression that spontaneity is given short shrift in the England dressing-room. Sadly, to my mind, this is no longer a contentious issue. It is drowned out by widespread support for a policy that could undermine rugby's appeal as a game for all shapes and sizes.

The emphasis on forward play is hardly an innovation, but sheer size is becoming such an overwhelming factor that the authorities may eventually have to legislate against the suffocating effects of physical dominance. What that takes from the game is beauty. It also introduces the possibility that only France will be able to compete on level terms with England in the Five Nations' Championship.

Cultural pride may occasionally intervene to bring about surprises, but, as the Wales coach, Alan Davies, has repeatedly stressed, it will become increasingly difficult on a proportionate basis for the other home countries to match England's growing physical authority.

In that respect, Saturday was revealing. According to Richard Escot of L'Equipe, who spent some time with them afterwards, the effect of defeat on the French players was compounded by the fact that they had travelled to Twickenham with great expectations. Given few opportunities to display natural flair, they were left psychologically shattered. "The general feeling is that with small improvements in the back play, England could have their best team ever," he said.

When Rowell referred to the French try as one unique to their tradition ("the sort only they could score") he was, to my mind, saying something significant.

For a few thrilling moments, risk-takers were in their element. After running from his own 22, Christophe Deylaud's pass to Philippe Bernat-Salles looked suspiciously forward, but only the most myopic patriots could have denied Sebastian Viars the glorious try that resulted.

Many years ago, the great Manchester United manager, Sir Matt Busby, warned that modern thinking, in his own words "too much mind", would make football less of a spectacle. Despite the game's surviving appeal, this has become, fundamentally, a truth. Brazil's success in the World Cup last summer was gained more through discipline than the individual flair historically associated with them.

A good question is what will future generations expect from sport? As long as it brings victory, will a method based essentially on athleticism and power be enough to hold the public's attention?

There are cyclical considerations, and possibly players will come along to restore faith in virtuosity. However, the suspicion held here is that the current pre-eminence of power in rugby is irreversible. This is not to detract from England's impressive performance. It is merely to wonder how imagined progress will be seen in the light of history.