reports from Johannesburg
As the World Cup will be won in June and not May it is reasonable, now that England are about to face Australia in tomorrow's quarter-final in Cape Town, to judge the dismal initial showing of Will Carling's team in a kindly light.
Indeed if you regard the tournament as a progression, then you could argue that the unconvincing wins over Argentina and Italy were an almost essential prerequisite before the higher tension of the knock-out stage.
The difficulty with this entirely tenable hypothesis is that it applies equally to Australia. England finished up Group B with a handsome defeat of Western Samoa; the Wallabies concluded their pool with their brightest performance.
The difference is that unlike England the holders had lost a game, to South Africa, and the contrast between their demeanour going into that colossal opening occasion and subsequently has been striking. If body- language won matches, you would give England every chance.
Mix in a soupcon of customary sourness from David Campese and you might even think the Wallabies were apprehensive. The nonpareil wing says he plays his rugby with a smile and the unsmiling English dislike him for it. He can be sure that England will not be unsmiling if they win.
In fact the Australians have admitted that they were probably too relaxed when they were last in Cape Town. Now they look tense and unusually uncertain, whereas Carling and company exude a confidence that cannot be based on the standard of their recent rugby.
Bob Dwyer, the esteemed Australian coach, wonders whether his team might have needed to fall, to receive a sharp shock, before they could rise. The alternative suggestion is that they are a side in gradual decline.
It will need the Cape Town quarter-final to establish the truth. The one player Australia have never adequately replaced is Nick Farr-Jones, the captain who lifted the Webb Ellis trophy four years ago after England had been beaten 12-6 in the final at Twickenham, but otherwise their most brilliant stars shine on.
Yet - not withstanding the English contention that tomorrow's opponents are without weakness - there are areas to exploit. The Wallaby scrummage, for instance, is no more than average and, begging Michael Lynagh's pardon, Australia's tactical and even strategic appreciation is nothing like as imposing as it was during the Farr-Jones era.
But then old Nick was a devil of a player in being not just a formidable scrum-half but in making on-the-hoof positional judgements. No one in recent rugby history has had such astounding peripheral vision.
When it comes to tactical savoir-faire England have scarcely shown themselves to be in the genius class either. It is all very well talking about exploiting the abundant gifts nature has bestowed on them, but that exploitation has been intermittent at home and abroad.
So it is now if ever for England to do so at last, and if they do not it will be a palpable waste. "It will be a long time before England have such a group of talented indivivduals assembled together," Jack Rowell, the manager, said yesterday before his players left Johannesburg for Cape Town.
"It hits you between the eyes. When you see them training and more especially playing through the Five Nations, you realise what special individuals they are. To go and play rugby successfully, which they have done, challenges their individual talent and rugby skill and also the mental equipment that has to go with it."
This is a generous tribute from a man who has a reputation for using reverse psychology to bring the best out of his players. That, at any rate, was how he did it at Bath but nothing his teams achieved in all those 17 years - not the eight cups nor the five league titles - would compare with one England win tomorrow.Reuse content