England look to the summit

Five Nations' Championship: Peak hour beckons for a side who have reached the heights of achievement Chris Rea believes Scotland's quest may founder on a formidable barrier
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The Independent Online
JIM TELFER is one of the most knowledgeable and respected men in rugby. A man of few words, he chooses them well and they are always worth listening to. When, therefore, the Scottish nation is on the brink of going off its collective trolley after two consecutive victories in the international championship, his cautionary advice should be heeded. England, he insists, will be the driving force in world rugby for the foreseeable future. They have the coaches, they have the players and, nowadays, they have the structure.

Furthermore, they are consistent winners, not only at the sharp end of the pyramid but further down at A level, Under-21s, students and schools. While club rugby in Scotland, Ireland and Wales is getting weaker, the Courage Leagues are prospering as never before. One only has to see the current plight of Northampton and Harlequins, two of the most richly resourced clubs in the land, to realise that. Telfer's warning is not intended to belittle Scotland's supreme efforts over the past month. Indeed he might even lay a small wager on them should they go to Twickenham unbeaten for the Grand Slam match next month. He is simply making the point that it is becoming more difficult for the other European countries to beat England and increasingly less likely in the future that they will be able to do so.

In the five years since their defeat against Scotland at Murrayfield, England have lost only three championship matches. But seldom can their supremacy have been more starkly obvious than it is at present. There is such an overwhelming inevitability about the result when England's forwards start to roll. Where the opposition are cut down short of the gain line, England succeed in making that vital breach either through their loose forwards or the rapidly developing Victor Ubogu. They have eight ball handlers in the pack and in the tight can overcome temporary malfunctions by adroitly changing strategy.

England are also discovering an increasing variety of ways to score tries, nine in their three championship games so far, and had Rob Andrew's decision- making been up to his recent standard last Saturday, the total might have been appreciably higher. But Andrew, of all people, can be excused an off day.

Will Carling's performance in Cardiff was a near flawless exhibition of centre play - penetrative in his running, abrasive in defence and as accurate as he was selfless in his distribution. Jeremy Guscott almost paled into insignificance alongside him but the point to remember is that if it was Carling's day against Wales in Cardiff it could just as easily be Guscott's in the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham. There are so many more strings to the Englishmen's bow, not the least of which is the burgeoning promise of the full-back Mike Catt. There was ample evidence last Saturday that he has already served his apprenticeship, and his kicking into space behind the Welsh lines, interpreted as waywardness by some, was breathtaking in its range and accuracy.

Not even their most rabid supporters could claim that Ireland, France and Wales have come close to offering a challenge. Of the three, Wales put up the best show and for the first half-hour gave the impression of being worthy opponents, but as Brian Moore had reasoned before the match, a team can get only so far on hywl. To be fair to Wales, it was more than mere spirit which sustained them through that period. There was a spell, early on in the line-out, when Martin Bayfield had to be taken into protective custody to spare him further punishment, yet it was a mark of his growing authority that he later eclipsed Derwyn Jones.

The Welsh proved to be a thorough nuisance, too, in the scrummage, although its importance in the overall scheme of things is based less on fact than on the propaganda of the props, and ever since the All Blacks reduced their scrum to three men to combat the 1977 Lions yet still won the series, I have been sceptical of the scrummage as a match-winning instrument.

Nevertheless Wales, albeit briefly, put England under pressure which was something that Ireland and France abjectly failed to do. But the strain was always tolerable, England's leisurely trot effortlessly matching Wales at full gallop. And when they turned up the heat, Wales simply could not live with them. Neither side should have had to live with the referee. Didier Mn was nowhere near competent enough at this level when he was given control of the game between Wales and South Africa earlier in the season and if anything he has got worse since. From his demeanour, he clearly does not enjoy the job and neither in his communication with the players nor in his feel for the play does he convey the slightest sensitivity.

He has manifestly failed to brush up on the offside law and if England felt the more aggrieved party in this respect the Welsh were far from satisfied by the referee's performance. It was their view afterwards that John Davies's boot had been aimed, not at Ben Clarke's head but at the incessantly infringing hand of Dean Richards. Either way, Davies was a fool to rush in.

It cannot, however, be a complete surprise in Wales that they find themselves point-less having played what most consider to be the two strongest teams in the championship, although the events in Paris last Saturday tend to confirm the suspicion that France were massively overrated following their success in New Zealand last summer. France, like Ireland, their opponents at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, having had four years to prepare for the World Cup, now find themselves in complete disarray with just three months until the start of the tournament.

The Scots, for their part, must approach their match against Wales at Murrayfield on Saturday in the unaccustomed and unwanted position as favourites. Despite the profligacy of Ireland's goalkickers and the tomfoolery of the French runners, the Scots have produced a potent alliance of impassioned commitment and, as with Gavin Hastings's try in Paris, deft touch. How they would fare were Hastings' form to desert him is another matter but the one moment of spontaneous combustion which led to the winning try at Parc des Princes must at least have persuaded the selectors to tolerate Gregor Townsend's occasional aberrations and to give him an extended run in the national side.

Scotland have few enough attacking options as it is to close down one as potentially fruitful as this and if the forward battle is close next Saturday, and the Welsh pack did enough in Cardiff last week to suggest that they may even have the edge, it could be Scottish enterprise which carries the day. We know that if Wales cannot contemplate an existence without Neil Jenkins neither can they exist on the scraps he is likely to create for those outside him. And the removal of Tony Clement and Nigel Walker from the front line has further dulled their edge. Only Scotland can now reach the peak to which England are already so close while Wales, Ireland and France scrap in the foothills.

It was only a matter of weeks ago that we were talking of France as potential champions of the world rather than the dunces of Europe. Despite their limitless resources, France have yet to match England's consistency, a reflection on an inadequate domestic structure.

Their fruitless search for a fly-half is a case in point although in this they are not alone. Ireland's tolerance threshold with their fly- halves is equally low, Paul Burke being the latest casualty. At the tender age of 21, his time will come again but one wonders why it was that Ireland dispensed with Eric Elwood in the first place. He should bring some much- needed direction to Ireland's misshapen game and will certainly improve the quality of their goal-kicking.

As for the French, their latest purge mixes the faded fragrance of the past with the unfulfilled potential of the present. Knowing the French, it will probably be a resounding success.

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