England face a test of passion

FIVE NATIONS Chris Rea says that only a return to traditional values will deny the Scots a Grand Slam
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The Independent Online
IF IT has been difficult this past week to keep Scottish feet on the ground, it has been equally hard to prevent England from hitting the roof. They have been wounded by the savagery of the criticism of their recent performances. The shining white knights of last season's Grand Slam have become the dark destroyers, the foresworn enemies of exuberance and flair, while the Scots are being portrayed as the champions of liberty and free expression. England, it is generally expected, will come to Murrayfield on Saturday to throttle not to thrill.

Already there is talk in the south that victory over the Scots would provide the cure for all England's ills and would restore their ailing fortunes. But that used to be Scotland's line in the days when they could see no further than beating the Sassenach and the result of the Calcutta Cup match would determine the success or failure of the season north of the border. But then it is not so long ago when victory over Wales by either side would have caused a sensation, yet in the last month both countries have done just that without being wholly comforted.

England have dispensed with two men o' war, Martin Bayfield and Tim Rodber, but have replaced them with the massive hulk of Garath Archer and the colossal Dean Richards, whose tour de force as Rodber's replacement at Murrayfield four years ago is still spoken of in reverential tones.

For those hoping for a change in strategy, the signs are not particularly encouraging. After what has seemed a life-time of grappling and mauling, it is inconceivable that England will switch to a rucking game. It has taken the Scots weeks, months and years of painful toil to mould themselves on the All Blacks and to refine their game to the stage it has reached. England have neither the time, nor the personnel, nor the attitude, to follow suit.

The complementary skills of Scotland's loose trio are well suited to the style they have adopted. It is a commando unit compared with the stiff- backed sergeant- majors in England's back row, where there is no one to forage as Ian Smith does so effectively and there is no creator in the class of Rob Wainwright.

In the general praise of Scotland's captain after last week's game in Cardiff, there was a tendency to overlook the more prosaic but none the less telling contribution made by Smith. His digging and delving combined with his tackling were vital to the Scots, who were for so much of the time fighting a rearguard action. Although height in the forwards can be a mixed blessing, it must be a serious concern to Scotland's coaches that the Welsh, whose physical capabilities are inferior to England's, could nevertheless control the line-out so easily and so reduce the tempo of the play.

The Scottish game is based on maximum speed and minimum contact. They are boxers not brawlers, but for the first quarter of the game in Cardiff they could not escape the clinches of Derwyn Jones and Gareth Llewellyn in the line-out. Nor could they extricate themselves from the suffocating presence of the Welsh forwards around the fringes. Gradually, through the doggedness of their tight five and by the boldness of their task- force in the back row, the Scots managed to find space but it is reasonable to assume that what the Welsh succeeded in doing for 20 minutes the English will do for a good while longer. Gregor Townsend's profligacy in his line kicking against Wales was criticised and certainly the number of times he missed touch from penalties which, had they found their mark, would have given the Scots the throw to the line-out, was unpardonable.

Townsend's relish for playing so close to the boundary wall, especially against a rampart as well constructed as England's defence, is fraught with danger, but the strategy has led a charmed life thus far. Furthermore, it is creating space for those outside him, and in his 10 years of international rugby it is doubtful if Scott Hastings has ever enjoyed himself as much as he did last Saturday. The old war-horse was cavorting like a spring lamb.

On their two previous visits to Murrayfield when Scotland won the Grand Slam, England were deemed by many to be guilty of gross complacency. On both occasions it is true the Scots' level of commitment outshone England's and they showed a tactical awareness lacking in their opponents' game. But this time there is no reason on God's earth why England should feel complacent. Since their defeat in Paris and the victory over Wales they have suffered unrelenting and scathing condemnation of their attitude. If there is even a shred of team spirit left in this side there is no reason to suppose that they are coming apart at the seams and there will be a united determination to make the critics choke on their words.

England's satisfaction would be immeasurably heightened, of course, were they to beat the Scots with the stylish flamboyance that has eluded them so far. There were spasms of fluency against Wales, but although there is individual skill in abundance in the England back division, the doubts remain about their collective ability to break down well-organised defences. It will help that Dean Richards is back in control at the base of the scrum and if he and his fellow forwards can be provoked into allowing a quick release of the ball we might even see the backs as a consistently attacking force.

England's performances this season, apart from being wholly predictable, have more surprisingly lacked passion. Without that, there will be no hope of survival at Murrayfield and the adage that the side which has the greater will to win will win has seldom been more appropriate. The question is whether England have as much to lose as Scotland have to gain. The answer to that is an unequivocal yes.