England excel at line management

five nations FOCUS: Rowell's side now present defenders with a wide variety of nightmares, says Steve Bale
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England have been on a long march yet they have just taken a great leap forward, so far and so fast that it may not be just the silver Five Nations trophy but the gold Webb Ellis one as well that stands glittering before them.

Will Carling's team have gone from almost immovable object to almost irresistible force and next it is Wales's turn, at Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday, to try to resist. But how? If you stop Richards, you then have to stop Rodber. If you stop Rodber, you have to stop Clarke. And so on ad infinitum, because by the time you get round to stopping Tony Underwood it is Clarke's or Rodber's turn again.

It took 80 bone-jarring, breath-taking minutes against France for England to move from possibles to probables - the French captain, Philippe Saint- Andre, now makes them co-favourites with Australia - for the World Cup.

When they win the ball, as they tend to, England seldom - not once against France - relinquish it, thereby simplifying their next objective of crossing the gain-line, a much-discussed but imaginary line across the field from the source of possession.

The gain-line (sometimes called the advantage-line) is critical because to cross it is to fulfil the fundamental requirement of going forward. England have so many potential points of attack, so many ways of making the gain-line that, far from the predictability of some recent predecessors, their rugby has become disarmingly unpredictable.

If anyone can devise a plan to stop them it is Bob Dwyer, the winning Australian coach in 1991 and still coach in '95, who is celebrated for his tactical judgements and minute analysis of opponents. "There's no doubt they are very good - but you are supposed to be good to be the best in the world and it would be a bit early to say it's a wake-up start for England," Dwyer said in Sydney.

"The England forwards have always been technically very good, even the first time I ever went to England in 1973. But they have added to that by having much bigger and fitter guys. They have worked out that if you want to beat teams that are big and strong and fast you'd better have players that are big and strong and fast.

"When they are all of these, it's difficult to defend but that's not to say it can't be done. When they have the ball you have to stop them running any distance at all. South Africa and Australia aren't exactly midgets either and, well as England are playing, I wouldn't have a moment's hesitation in saying they are beatable if you prepare for them the right way and play the right way against them."

Dwyer himself would recognise these as statements of the obvious, except that the execution of such a defensive plan demands a more elevated level of performance than anything we are likely to see against them by Wales on Saturday or Scotland at Twickenham on 18 March.

"If you are looking at it technically, you would want to minimise put- ins to the scrum by England, line-out throws and giving them free-kicks or penalty kicks," Jeff Young, the Welsh Rugby Union's technical director, said.

"There are various tactical approaches you can employ to achieve this. Defence is a key area in which they must be attacked. We have to make sure we tackle them behind the gain-line so that they are going back and so that we can get our support players into the game.

"What England have developed is a greater dynamic, particularly in the tackle area, and the tactical battle to counter them can work only if the players have the skills and physical and technical capability to go into tactical detail and reach those relatively simple objectives."

Sounds easy, doesn't it? "In theory it really is relatively simple," Young insisted, "but it will be alien to many people because you have to keep having the ball. You can't afford to have knock-ons, throws forwards, kicks into touch, commit offsides or give penalty kicks - because any or all of those would just be giving them the ball.

"You also need to utilise your own strengths as a side. There's nothing like surprise, nothing like speed to be able to demoralise and disorganise the opposition. That's an area where Wales have considerable qualities. England's physical attributes come into play only when they have the initiative and Saturday's game will be about teams competing for the initiative."

How different it was in Young's day. He was Wales's hooker against England five times from 1969-73 and won the lot. Ian McGeechan, nowadays struggling to lift Northampton off the bottom of the Courage League First Division, won only two of his six for Scotland against England but, more particularly, coached the Scottish side who beat England in the climactic Grand Slam match of 1980.

"The major difference now is that they have probably four or five people in positions to make decisions about what is happening to possession, whereas the big weakness of England was the inability to vary their tactical approach under pressure," McGeechan said.

We still do not know - and at this rate may never find out - whether England would be vulnerable to opposition who win enough ball to pull those gargantuan forwards about the field. For McGeechan, though, this is not an issue. "That idea, that your back row has to be at every breakdown, is three years out of date," he said.

"Now you are talking about being able to produce ball five or six times and, when you do that, you can't have the same group of players there all the time. You are now after multi-skilled players, backs who can react to contact and control the ball, and forwards who can be link players and when they can't make that contact will be at the next one."

Dwyer, an old antagonist of McGeechan from the Lions tour of 1989, begs to differ. "I don't exactly agree with saying it's a bit out of date but I would say it's more easily said than done. The most difficult thing to do is win the ball in the first place."

Against the English behemoths, especially. "Bayfield and to a lesser extent Johnson and also the back row are pretty good at winning the ball, so in a sense England can do what they like," Dwyer said. "Anyone who can give France quite a bath is a very good side and very hard to handle. But by no means impossible."