England ploy fails to please

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The Independent Online
I am making no predictions about Saturday's match, but what used to be called Fleet Street still contains a disproportionate number of Scotsmen. Those I have spoken to do not give their country much chance at Twickenham. The most popular estimate is that England will win by 20 to 30 points. The most common reason supplied is that Scotland will have no answer to England's forward power in general and their rolling maul in particular.

I have always argued that the rolling maul is illegal because, in my view, it offends against the laws relating to obstruction, offside and the forward pass. The occasion was provided by New Zealand's tour of Wales, when the visiting team made copious use of the device.

It has since been legitimised, with the proviso that the ball-carrier must be at the front of the maul. Even so, passing - or, as it is now called, "smuggling" - the ball forward still occurs and goes unpenalised by referees who are in all other respects stern upholders of the law.

What is worse from the defending side's point of view is that they are not allowed to do their job: to defend. To bring the maul down is a penalty offence. What are they supposed to do?

I remember Dick Best making this point after Leicester had defeated Harlequins at The Stoop a season or so ago. Both Leicester and Bath specialise in the ploy. They are the two most successful teams in England, in cup and league alike.

My recollection is that the England team began to develop the rolling maul in the 1980s, even before New Zealand took it up. It has since spread to the leading clubs. But the influence is two-way: Dean Richards, Martin Johnson, Ben Clarke and Victor Ubogu bring their club skills to England, their English skills to their clubs.

I do not underestimate the craftsmanship which is required to set up a successful rolling maul. It can provide some hardened former forwards with as much aesthetic satisfaction as a three-quarter movement ending in a try. I nevertheless believe it is a harmful feature of the modern game.

It is harmful principally because it brings the laws into contempt. Suppose a maul is rolling within a few yards of the line. The defending side bring it down. No player, commentator or spectator is, in these circumstances, going to say: "What a disgraceful piece of foul play!" They will instead recognise that the defending side preferred to concede three points rather than seven (for rolling mauls often occur in the goalpost area, as England's did when Ubogu scored against Wales).

The rolling maul, in other words, justifies - or, at any rate, makes readily understandable - the professional foul. This can only be bad for the game.

The best advice for Scotland, I am afraid, is to prevent England from getting into a position where they can begin one of these moves. But all is not lost.

For the entire Five Nations season we have been told that Mike Catt is going to be put under pressure by somebody or other. He never is. However, Craig Chalmers is a more accomplished exponent of the up-and-under than any other outside-half in the championship. The criticism of Neil Jenkins so far is that he has kicked not too much but too little, and (his goal- kicking apart) not accurately enough. This cannot be said of Chalmers.

None the less, I am sceptical about the ploy. You do not test the English back row, so far untested, by shovelling the ball down Catt's throat. You test them by kicking into the corners, which has the additional merit of pressuring one of the Underwood brothers.

It has been written that, with a few exceptions, Scotland are man-for- man inferior to England. I am not sure that I altogether agree. Gavin Hastings has had a marvellous season. On current form, Ken Logan would be the Lions' left wing with Tony Underwood on the right. Though Will Carling has played remarkably well - a pity he cannot play so well for the Quins - the most creative centre of the season so far has been Gregor Townsend.

I am not technically well enough informed to judge whether David Hilton or Jason Leonard is the better loose-head prop: but one is not self-evidently the other's superior. In the back row, Rob Wainwright and Iain Morrison would challenge Tim Rodber and Clarke respectively for a Lions place.

No, all is certainly not lost for Scotland by any means, rolling mauls notwithstanding.