Treating a Test in Paris as a means to an end rather than an end in itself smacks of dangerous philosophy, but Will Carling last night left no doubt of his and his England team's conversion to the belief that forward planning might just entail present defeat.
Not that the England captain necessarily expects it when he faces France at Parc des Princes at the opening of the Five Nations' Championship on Saturday. Jack Rowell, the manager, did pose the question earlier in the season whether English rugby was willing to tolerate a setback or two as a team and style were developed and Carling seems to have given him his answer.
"It would be a great bonus to win another Grand Slam, but it's not No 1 on my list," he said after the England players had reacquainted themselves at Roehampton, where they will train again today before flying to Paris this afternoon.
"I want us to play to the best of our abilities and that may mean we don't win," Carling went on. "This is a young side and we have to be realistic about setting goals. Our style of play is more important, if we are to be consistently successful against the southern hemisphere, than just focusing everything on winning another Grand Slam. If that was the case, we would have picked a different side."
Carling's captaincy has been perceived to be under pressure after England's aimless play in the matches against South Africa and Western Samoa, but Rowell was happy to report yesterday that it was the captain himself who had been laying down the tactical plans for this game and therefore, he might have added, taking on his responsibility.
Carling has made a hard choice. England have already done the Grand Slam three times in the Nineties, so a once-formidable achievement may be becoming old hat. However, the public response to the recent internationals has shown how badly people who have come to presume success take even relative failure.
Even so, Carling's men have made up their minds. "We sat down as a squad and said what is our most important goal, winning a Grand Slam or developing a style of play that may take some time but will make us more successful? We said it was the style of play. We don't want to lose games, but long term is the most important thing."
Dean Richards will not after all play for England in Paris, Ben Clarke having declared himself fit after the muscle spasm in his pelvis which had made him doubtful. However, Richards will instead sit on the bench. Tim Rodber, relegated after the unimpressive win over Western Samoa, withdrew yesterday with a combination of knee and ankle injuries.
Such was the eulogistic response to the most-capped No 8's return to the squad last Sunday that it was hard to detect whether the management were pleased or not when Clarke pulled through. Those who had been talking about the advantages of having a rock-like character such as Richards on the field in France would now have to say England can do without him, if only because they must.
n Neil Francis, the Irish second row, has overcome a chest infection and will play against Scotland at Lansdowne Road.Reuse content