England look to the future

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: Subtle changes to Rowell's forward thinking usher in new order Chris Rea studies the tactical shifts likely to be on show at Twickenham on Saturday
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At a time when European grandees are attempting to standardise everything from the currency to the length of asparagus, it is comforting to discover that the Five Nations' Championship remains determinedly resistant to change. If English veal is o ff themenu, the rosbif has never looked better. France continued to combine the beautiful with the beastly, pursuing the one with matchless artistry and the other with a cynical disregard for the consequences. At least Pierre Berbizier has done the dece nt thing and by dropping Olivier Merle for the game against England on Saturday he has set a worthy example to those other countries whose craven sacrifice of honourable principle for squalid expediency is besmirching the game.

Irrespective of last Saturday's thuggery in Paris it would have been a surprise had Berbizier wanted the volatile Merle at Twickenham. That very small part of him which is not a downright hindrance to France is a positive help to the opposition. In conditions as uncharitable as those at all three international venues last weekend, the already impressive science of detecting changing trends and analysing tactical shifts was rendered virtually impossible, particularly among the vanquished whose primary fu nction was ultimately one of containment.

One assumes that the Irish had a plan, although with a raging gale behind them and a quivering new full-back in front, it was never obvious. England, on the other hand, knew exactly what they were going to do. Predictably, it began and ended with the absolute power and authority of the forwards. But this time there was one subtle difference: Rob Andrew's positioning at fly-half, closer than at any time, on the very precipice of the gain line, was the first sign of England's much- heralded move into rugby's new age.

The full implementation of the strategy will depend on a number of things, not least how quickly Kyran Bracken can refine his passing technique which, with Richard Hill's assistance, he is in the process of reconstructing. Just as there were those who felt that a swing as apparently flawless and as manifestly rewarding as Nick Faldo's was best left well alone, there will be many who question the wisdom of tampering with what is generally regarded to be the strongest part of Bracken's game. B ut just as Faldo's decision was the right one and has established him as the world's leading golfer, so Bracken is convinced that if England are to challenge the supremacy of the Southern Hemisphere and are to win rugby's most coveted prize on territory and in conditions alien to them, they must change their ways.

It is England's good fortune that they have, in Bracken, a player young enough and sufficiently gifted to adapt his game to modern requirements. It is something Dewi Morris, for all his many qualities, could never do. In many ways therefore, Bracken has become as important to England's World Cup plans as Andrew. They are the two players Jack Rowell can least afford to lose. Yet, on the flimsy evidence of a blustery and bitter day at Lansdowne Road, it was clear that England are only half way to achieving their aims, with the exception of Will Carling's try Andrew's flat running was mainly for the benefit of his forwards supporting on the inside rather than for the backs outside. It is not until the backs can operate successfully in the cluttered midfield, where time and distance meet in head-on collision and where only the most skilful survive the wreckage, that England can be certain they have arrived at their destination.

Wisely, in the conditions, England were content to keep it simple for the most part. When they didn't, like France they fell prey to the curse of modern three-quarter play, the infernal spin pass. The conditions in Dublin and Paris demanded that the backs stand close together, revert to the old but reliable pendulum pass and to vary the angles of their running. But no. At Parc des Princes, Emile N'Tmack's try was scored despite and not because of the efforts of those inside him.

And television replays have shown that Jeremy Guscott has been grievously wronged by those of us who felt that he should have passed to Rory Underwood instead of attempting to reach the line on his own. Underwood was being closely tracked by Simon Geoghegan, but had the England wing adjusted the angle of his run as he did so subtly against the Scots at Twickenham two years ago, the try would surely have been scored.

England did not need to take those chances at Lansdowne Road, but it could be a different matter at Twickenham on Saturday. Mike Catt will be truly tested in an international for the first time. Even for a player as talented as he is, there are all manner of pitfalls waiting to swallow him, and if the Irish halves had the experience and composure to expose his positional naivety, there were a number of times they could have done so.

Still, it is churlish to quibble. England's performance last Saturday was impressive by any standards. They are a superb side with more individual talent than any of their championship rivals. Carling is once again at full power and the forwards were magnificent. The scrummage bristled with menace, the line-out was a masterpiece of organisation, and those pulverising loose forwards provided ringing affirmation of the theory that the modern game is for the big boys.

On that score, however, I remain unconvinced. The French do not appear to have as much going for them as it seemed following their success in New Zealand. But they do have a mighty back row, in the physical sense and in the variety of their skills. Giventhat England's pack will face stiffer resistance, we may at last see England's back row for what it really is. But if there is an away win next weekend, it is more likely to be at Murrayfield.

If the Irish were not as good as they fondly imagined themselves to be before England dismantled them, they are certainly not as bad as many are now painting them. Michael Bradley will return to give more authority and direction at half-back, but the selectors, having picked Paul Burke in the first instance are duty-bound to give him another chance. Their back row would be immeasurably strengthened by the inclusion of a genuine No 8, Ben Cronin, and a specialist open side in Denis McBride.

Against Canada, Scotland's forwards advanced to a slightly different tune. Instead of setting up their beloved mini-rucks in front of the defence, they are now seeking to slip the ball to supporting groups before making contact with the opposition and only when there is no immediate support to hand do they drive in to set up the ruck. It is a recognition that, against the bigger packs, the Scots are likely to be at a distinct disadvantage and makes sound sense. But it does place additional demands on the ball-playing abilities of the Scottish forwards who, in the wretched conditions against Canada displayed both character and purpose. There remains the uneasy feeling that their wet-weather game at Murrayfield last Saturday will not be much different tothat they intend to take to the high veldt in four months' time.

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