England adrift in new world

Chris Rea says Jack Rowell's men remain confused and without direction
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The Independent Online
SOMETHING, quite apart from the stillborn promise of England's new spirit of adventure, died within rugby union at Twickenham last Saturday.

Perhaps it was the West car park, once the world's most convivial picnic site, now reduced to half its size by the sprawling advance of the building development. Or it might simply have been the stultifying rugby played by the national side on an occasion which had promised much more. But it was, I suspect, something more complex than that.

The relationship between the crowd and the players has been irreversibly altered as a result of rugby's revolution. When Jon Webb, an orthopaedic surgeon and the erstwhile Bath and England full-back, played the occasional stinker it was in all probability because he had already worked a 72-hour week in the operating theatre. It was therefore much easier to understand his aberrations and to forgive them. When some years ago BBC Wales spliced together half a dozen of his worst gaffes as part of the hype before the Welsh game, it was considered to be in the poorest of taste. Someone who was patching up broken bodies one day and putting his own on the line the next commanded nothing but the greatest respect and admiration.

It was a very different story last week. Mike Catt, who gained his niche in rugby history by becoming England's first fully professional player, had criticised his predecessor before the match. But, whatever his limitations as a player, Rob Andrew had achieved heroic status in his own country. Worse still, Catt chose to belittle Francois Pienaar who, by leading the Springboks to the World Cup, had become enshrined as one of the game's immortals. Catt very probably meant well, but in his clumsy attempts to raise the morale of his own side he succeeded only in raising the hackles of England's opponents. Even if he had made Pienaar look ordinary on the day, some of the lustre of his own performance would inevitably have been removed by the ungraciousness of his remarks.

In the circumstances it was very difficult to detect any sympathy among the crowd for Catt, who must have been going through all kinds of torment on the field. He had made his own bed and, even if it was one of thorns, he would have to lie on it. There were no excuses, therefore there could be no pardon.

But if Catt is the first of the new breed of rugby players to feel the chill blast of public censure he will most assuredly not be the last. The announcement last week that England's coaches will be paid brings them into the same line of fire. Jack Rowell will quickly discover that the shareholders at Dalgety, where he used to work, were pussycats compared with the fickle and expectant sporting public.

I have an enormous respect for Rowell and like him immensely, but it really is time that he stopped playing silly mind-games with the players. It was blindingly obvious throughout the World Cup, and again last Saturday, that there is a sense of utter bewilderment within the squad. There is no apparent direction, no discernible strategy and, with a couple of exceptions, things have gone from bad to worse since the victory over Canada a year ago.

The word is that Rowell does not contemplate making many changes for the game against Western Samoa next month. That would be a grave mistake. Victory against the Samoans followed by, at the very least, a Triple Crown in the Five Nations' Championship, might satisfy some, but in world terms it is almost irrelevant. And England must be judged by the yardstick of the world game. Assuming that a maximum 10 of last weekend's side will be in World Cup contention in four years, Rowell should use every opportunity to give international experience to those who are peripheral at present but who fit into his plans for the future, assuming he has some.

Graham Rowntree, Matt Dawson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Rory Jenkins and Paul Hull immediately spring to mind, although in the case of the last, despite recalling him to the squad, Rowell has displayed a marked reluctance to conform to the general view that the Bristol back is a talent worth nurturing.

First, Rowell must do something about his scrum. Whether he likes it or not, Jason Leonard should switch from the loose to the tight head to accommodate Rowntree. The promising lock Simon Shaw's grievous misfortune with injury when playing for Bristol against Transvaal last week is a mighty blow to England who, despite physical size, lack presence. It takes more than height and weight to break down modern defences.

Last Saturday, England failed to reach the same levels of controlled frenzy and continuous aggression in the loose achieved by southern hemisphere sides. Rowell would have every reason to change both his half-backs. Dawson, another underrated talent, is playing superbly, albeit in League Two for Northampton. Almost by default, until his recent injury, David Pears appeared certain to replace Catt at fly-half. Pears's history of injury is now too bad for it not to be a consideration, but he would bring a controlling calm to England's play in this crucial position, which Catt, for all his many gifts, seems incapable of doing.

If there is to be a place for Hull, it could be on the left wing, where Rory Underwood appeared to be in a state of transcendental meditation for most of the match. How much more pleasant the afternoon would have been had we been able to join him.