England put on the blinkers

Scotland 9 England 18; Dods 3 Penalties Grayson 6
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The Independent Online
It can now be plainly seen that the moment Dean Richards was recalled for England was the moment they finally gave up - for the time being, anyway - any pretence at playing faster and looser, in accordance with rugby's modern idiom. Better make that slow and tight.

Let us be kind and say this is not a complaint (though you may be sure there are Scots by the clanful infuriated that England should have succeeded by so brazenly reverting to type) but a straight statement of fact. Will Carling's team have in effect gone back to square one and by doing so they will in all probability go on to win the Triple Crown.

The question that needs posing is whether England are to be blamed for playing to their strength. Well of course not, but given that there is more to Test rugby than the Grand Slam let alone the Calcutta Cup, the answer is not quite as obvious as that.

England equalled a record by beating Scotland for a seventh consecutive time, their preferred method of preventing a Scottish Slam being to squeeze the life out of their opponents in an international version of rugby Leicester-style. The common denominator? Dean Richards.

As Carling has repetitively reminded everyone that the first priority is simply to win, he had to be satisfied - though "very relieved" was his actual response. Richards, meanwhile, has fewer qualms even than his captain in anticipating the satisfaction that a one-point win over Ireland on 16 March would provide.

But England like to think of themselves as players on the world stage and it is impossible to believe that a laborious performance such as this, when long encampment in opposition territory designedly brings no more than penalty goals, would suffice against the genuine world-class players from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

That said, they have to start - or restart - somewhere and for an evolving team to come to Murrayfield and win where the French failed is a worthy achievement, no matter how tryless and joyless. "OK, there weren't any tries but it wasn't for lack of trying," Carling insisted. Which scarcely accorded with this curious remark by Paul Grayson: "Because we had territorial advantage, we were in a position to get kickable penalties."

Scotland, notably the helplessly insubordinate Peter Wright, duly obliged. But if England's ambition really is that limited, then they deserve the slating they are receiving north of the border, even if those Scots most in the know are not involved. "I wouldn't comment on England; they were no better or worse than us," Jim Telfer, the Scotland manager, gruffly conceded.

Grayson eventually kicked six of his nine kickable penalties while Michael Dods managed three from six, and though epic rugby is not necessarily try-scoring rugby this was a match that screamed for a try to leaven the stodge. England cannot argue away the truths that Rory Underwood did not receive a pass before the 69th minute and the other England wing, Jon Sleightholme, did not have a single one.

On the contrary, it was the Scots who contrived even on meagre rations to be incisive and ingenious, Gregor Townsend's daredevil activity contrasting absolutely with Grayson's version of a stand-off standing back out of harm's way. Perversely, the two are team-mates at Northampton where it is Grayson who is preferred by Ian McGeechan - no Englishman he - as his outside-half.

This tells us how Grayson can play if circumstances are propitious but in Saturday's game it seems they seldom were. "Sometimes people don't understand the passion that goes into Five Nations rugby," Carling sought to explain. "Sometimes it's a bit too easy to say `play free-flowing rugby'."

At least Scotland had a go. They were hammered by their own handling mistakes and the too-constant turning-over of their own precious possession. Ultimately, they succumbed because the delivery of their ball was so slowed, above all by Richards - but England have equally to accept that in reselecting Richards and enjoying his comforting presence their own delivery is slowed too.

As attacking rugby, or at any rate running rugby, tends to depend on quick ball Jack Rowell, the harassed England manager, has by his choice militated against it. And now that Richards is back, Rowell dare not ever again - not as long as he is available for selection - do without him. "Dean Richards was strategic," the manager said. For strategic, read indispensable.

The omnipotent No 8 withdrew prematurely with a knobbly-knee injury which, to his intense relief, will excuse him from England's training session next Sunday. For the three minutes that then remained England showed they could just about get by - always provided his absence is only temporary. "It's uncanny where he appears," Carling said. "No one seems to be able to move him."

The captain was another who had done rather well but, apart from the isolated run that ended with the isolated pass to Underwood, this had more to do with the unspectacular, tidying up and tackling back, than with anything that might have elevated England beyond the functional. "In the long periods we were in the Scottish half we were calling some positive things; you might not believe that but we were." Does he even believe it himself, I wonder?

In the end despite the best endeavours of their compatriot inquisitors, the Scottish management would not express even mild distaste for the way, winning but not winsome, England had mucked up their Grand Slam design - until David Johnston, normally the quiet one, could stand it no longer.

The England players each receive a pounds 2,000 match fee on top of a pounds 24,000 seasonal retainer and the Scotland coach, a creative but definitely amateur centre from the halcyon days of the 1984 Grand Slam, had been unimpressed by the value given by Carling's centre partner in particular.

"I'd like Jeremy Guscott's contract, because he doesn't seem to have to do very much for his money," Johnston chided. As a cryptic comment on this version of England rugby, this said it all.

SCOTLAND: R Shepherd; C Joiner (Melrose), S Hastings (Watsonians), I Jardine (Stirling County), M Dods; G Townsend (Northampton), B Redpath (Melrose); D Hilton (Bath), K McKenzie (Stirling County), P Wright (Boroughmuir), S Campbell (Dundee HSFP), G Weir (Newcastle), R Wainwright (Watsonians, capt), E Peters (Bath), I Smith (Gloucester).

ENGLAND: M Catt; J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); P Grayson, M Dawson (Northampton); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Bristol), B Clarke (Bath), D Richards (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacement: T Rodber (Northampton) for Richards, 77.

Referee: D Bevan (Wales).

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