England advance in slow motion

Geoffrey Nicholson reflects on stirring performances from two debutants
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RUGBY UNION'S extravagant Christmas present to itself was no surprise parcel. The resplendent new stadium at Twickenham had already been unwrapped to show the Springboks in November. It had also been opened up for the Oxbridge match on Tuesday, but now it's ribbon has been officially cut by the Duke of Edinburgh, its fairy lights on, and it can't be taken back to the shop if it's not the right size.

It fitted yesterday's match, with 75,000 spectators in the ground. But now that the England players have taken the rugby union's shilling, they are going to have to earn Twickenham's keep both by their success and their entertainment value.

The success was theirs. You can't argue with 27-9, and at the start it looked as though the new England half-backs would spark off the long-lost entertainment. Dawson & Grayson may sound like a firm of solicitors, but they get on with the business with a great deal more urgency. They are young - in their early twenties - with bags of swank, lots of passing tricks up their sleeves and, as regular parts at Northampton, a practised understanding of each others play.

They continued with freshness and energy to the very end, Matthew Dawson darting everywhere to pick up the loose ball, and Paul Grayson playing to his centres, having a little dab on his own and only searching out long accomplished kicks down the touchline when it was the kind of option he couldn't ignore.

"It was very, very quick - as everyone says after their first cap," Grayson said. "But it went well today, to say the least. "

When he kicked England into a six-point lead after eight minutes with his first two penalty goals, it seemed to be only a matter of time before England, with this smooth service from half-back, would break loose. But not at all. Everything clogged up in the three-quarter line where nobody seemed capable of making a genuine attacking space. Instead, a penalty duel between Grayson and the Western Samoan fly-half, Darren Kellett, provided the only points for a full hour, driving the crowd to a fine pitch of frustration.

It reached its height when Grayson, having kicked five successive penalties, shaped up for a sixth and - poor chap, it was hardly his fault - was subjected to slow hand clap. When he ran up to kick the ball he had to drive it through the kind of barrier of whistling you associate with the Parc des Princes. And when he missed the goal for the first time, he was roundly applauded. The reaction was not against him so much as the inability of the England backs to put a decent move together.

The final quarter did bring a gutsy try from another of the new men, Lawrence Dallaglio, and a further try for Rory Underwood. This did something to redeem the game for some England followers but it was late and little. It will take a lot more where that came from to ensure that the new Twickenham attracts capacity audiences and proves to be English rugby's white knight and not its white elephant.

l Harlequins' Brian Moore announced his retirement from international rugby yesterday. England's tenacious World Cup hooker bows out having won 64 caps since his debut in 1987.