England go back for the future

Five Nations' analysis: The Grand Slam, the great let-down and the descent into a senseless war of words
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The Independent Online
IF YOU'VE got it, flaunt it, and if, as we are so frequently reminded, the Five Nations' Championship is the envy of the rest of the rugby world, it should be paraded at every opportunity in front of the biggest possible audience, not shoved like a bag of priceless jewellery under the mattress. If ever an occasion fell flat on its red face, it was the post-match celebration of England's Grand Slam at Twickenham. Considering the grot esquely over-hyped build-up, it was a feat of staggering proportions to turn the day into such a promotional non-event.

Some way could and should have been found of overcoming the twin difficulties of unfinished building work and royal security to present the Championship trophy to the victorious captain at the end of the game. The opportunity was lost to capitalise on one of the year's finest sporting achievements. The presentation, made in front of a few hundred invited guests at the after-match dinner was heralded by a fanfare of indifference.

It proved the game is indeed riddled with amateurism but it was not a day when rugby presented itself in the best light either on or off the field.

It was downbeat, downmarket completion to a championship which had began with the promise of higher skills, brighter play and more tries. The latter at least came to pass and, despite the fact that the final round of matches produced only one try, there was a 50 per cent increase from the previous season in the total number of tries scored. This was mainly the result of the welcome alterations to the ruck and maul law. Mercifully, the stridently negative forces which were silencing the voices of sanity have, by and large, been stilled.

Unfortunately, the standard of refereeing has failed to match that improvement. If anything, it has deteriorated although whether this is a reflection on the quality of the referees or on the fact that the game can no longer be governed by one person is uncertain. But something will have to be done about the offside law and if the forthcoming World Cup in South Africa is to be presented as a spectacle fit for mass consumption, it will have to be done pretty quickly.

The yellow card, which has been introduced for foul play this season, should now be extended to players who persistently infringe the off-side law and particularly those who deliberately infringe close to their own line with the intention of preventing a possible try. It could also be extended to cover the professional foul which is increasingly besmirching the amateur game and which was tiresomely evident at Twickenham last Saturday.

So was the almost continuous invective directed at the referee, who seemed powerless to act although he has the sanction of penalising such pointless protest- ation. Brian Moore was marched 10 metres back, metaphorically speaking, by the entire Scottish nation following his ungracious remarks. Moore, of course, takes a perverse delight in playing up to his image as a pit bull terrier and saying what he thinks very often before he has time to think what he is saying. But isn't it now a legal requirement for pit bulls to be muzzled when they appear in public?

It is high time that the game's administrators found some way of restricting the flow of words appearing under the players' names in the national newspapers. No professional sport would tolerate such a licence to excuse, accuse and to justify.

Ben Clarke, a charming man, was unwittingly caught in the trap when he wrote about the incident in Cardiff which led to the dismissal of the Welsh prop, John Davies. By confirming in print that he had been kicked on the head, Clarke implied that it was Davies who had done it, and while Clarke's remarks may not have prejudiced Davies's case when it came up before the appeals committee, they cannot have helped. I remain convinced that whoever it was who clobbered Clarke, it was not Davies. Not that the Welsh have much to crow about. Their justifiable indignation at Olivier Merle's unpardonable head butt on Ricky Evans and demand for punitive action have not extended to Richie Collins for his craven assault on the Irish fly-half Eric Elwood last week.

The championship itself flattered to deceive. The talk of England's change of style has, in my view, barely progressed beyond the talking stage. They have been no more adventurous this season than they were for three- quarters of the 1990 championship or throughout the 1992 series when, under Geoff Cooke's management, they produced some sparklingly inventive rugby. That doesn't mean that England are not better equipped to play a more enterprising game than they were under Cooke, and by introducing players like Kyran Bracken and Mike Catt and by heightening the forwards' awareness of what is required of them, Jack Rowell has signalled his intentions. But the road to heaven in May and June will be paved not with good intentions but bold deeds.

Catt is indisputably the find of the season, albeit at the expense of Paul Hull, who was by some margin the outstanding player on England's tour to South Africa last summer. Now it seems likely that Hull will be omitted from the World Cup squad due to be announced tomorrow although the versatility of someone who can perform at such a high level of competence in six of the seven positions behind the scrum would be invaluable.

The speed and timing of Catt's running and the instinctively correct angle at which he joins the attack are reminiscent of John Gallagher in his prime. And in his last two games against Wales and Scotland there were signs that he is swiftly coming to terms with the more prosaic demands of full-back play. His positional play is much improved and his defensive interventions as he twice demonstrated last Saturday were crucial. With an adhesive pair of hands and a stout heart he is now better equipped to deal with the aerial bombardment when it comes.

Rowell may be less sanguine about Bracken, whose decision to reconstruct his pass is having a baleful affect on his game. A detailed breakdown of Bracken's service has been compiled by a statistician (who is presumably also a Dewi Morris fan) and sent to the England management. It makes dismal reading but, as with most statistics, it tells only half the story. Bracken is a hugely talented player who will be of great strategical importance in South Africa. Nevertheless, his erratic form so close to the World Cup is a worry.

In shape, balance and power England have proved themselves once again to be the best side in Europe but are they now ready to conquer the world, the unfaltering concentration and conviction with which they flicked Ireland and France off their collar were less in evidence in the last two matches. Doubts persist over the composition of the back row and Clarke's suitability as a specialist open side. But surely it is too late to recall Neil Back. We are not talking here about a minor alteration in personnel but a radical change of style which, were England to have considered seriously, they would have had to adopt at the beginning of the season not at the end, just six weeks before the start of the tournament. If Back is picked, he would have to go, not as a filler against the also rans or as a long stop in the event of belated tactical reappraisal, but as a key member of the side. So much of England's play would have to be reorganised to accommodate him - their line-out, defensive patterns and their entire philosophy in attack. Tomorrow, we should know more.

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