England still shackled by fear of daring

England 21 Wales 15 Underwood, Guscott Tries Ta ylor, Howley Grayson 3 Penalties A Thomas
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England finished without him but let us, even so, begin with Will Carling. By the perverse means of his eventual absence the captain proved his leadership qualities, since without him England apparently had none and thereby did their damnedest to present this uninspired match to Wales.

Yes, an England-Wales match uninspired, conducted largely in semi-silence once Twickenham's imbecilic element, now familiar, had worked the heckling at English ineptitude out of the system. It was a weird atmosphere for a weird occasion when Carling, even having stated that just to win was a priority, knew that just to win would never be enough.

So to suggest, as he does, that victory will of itself have some incalculably beneficial effect on his team's diminished confidence can be no more than wishful thinking. Strange as it is how times change so swiftly, on the basis of this near-capitulation no sensible analyst can, as of right now, imagine England winning at Murrayfield on their next outing in four weeks.

Quite properly, the upbeat Welsh management - whose team, begging Jack Rowell's pardon, are less familiar with international rugby than Rowell's - derived more pleasure from these events than their English counterparts. On the one hand, Wales feel themselves to be on the way up and are enthused that they, unlike England, dared to dare even if some of it carried daring into the realms of idiocy.

On the other, once England appreciated the advantage they had at the scrummage they distilled their previously more liberated strategy into the mind-numbing familiarity of brawn in preference to brain. The England manager let slip that there would be an inquest into why Ben Clarke insisted on keeping scrum ball at his feet when his outside backs, the rejuvenated Carling and Jeremy Guscott most notably, were looking so dangerous.

In a trice Rowell suggested we did not read too much into his remark, but by then the point had been well-made. If England are going to play the slo-mo rugby that has served them so well so often, they might as well have Dean Richards there to do it. But Richards's comparative immobility would strike at the very essence of the rugby to which Rowell "aspires" (to use his own description), meaning either way England cannot win, not figuratively anyhow.

The ongoing excuse, or perhaps that should be explanation, is that England train a certain way but play another. The flaw with this argument is that any team, any time, anywhere perforce do the same yet it does not seem to have got through that practising against Richmond or West London Institute is only any use as a rehearsal. The actual performance is something else.

England's problem is that they are not operating as a team, not withstanding these comments by Tim Rodber after his impressive return to the colours: "This win has more significance than anyone outside the squad can understand. The pressure has brought us together and now this win has made the bond closer."

We shall see. Against Wales, in fact in all four of their games this season, England have been less than the sum of their parts and Saturday cruelly demonstrated - cruelly for Paul Grayson - that if one part is malfunctioning the entire machine can break down. When even Rob Andrew starts criticising England for their kicking game, something has to be seriously amiss.

"What we have is two young half-backs under a lot of pressure because the team isn't clicking as we'd like; there is a lot of pressure on them to do the right thing all the time," Rowell said. Which was an interesting reflection, since he went on to marvel that the Welsh should need to keep a stand-off such as Neil Jenkins on the bench in order to accommodate the elfin Arwel Thomas - as if to say, if only one of them were English.

It should be said, too, that doing the right thing all the time is neither demanded nor expected of Thomas. Just as well really, given that he makes so many mistakes - but how England would love even a modicum of the exuberance he brings to the game. "If you know Arwel, nothing is predictable about him, so every time he gets the ball everyone goes 'aah'," Jonathan Humphreys, the Wales captain, said.

Humphreys's "aah" was more of a screech than a purr of satisfaction, the early try with which Wales opened up the game being a case in point. England expected Thomas, late-tackled by Graham Rowntree, to go for goal and when he tapped it instead he was confronted by a complete phalanx of England forwards. It was as much panic as perspicacity that forced him to move towards the open spaces but his team-mates were so much more alert than England that seconds later Hemi Taylor was scoring.

England had pulled themselves round by half-time, Rory Underwood's 50th international try (including one for the Lions) followed in the second half by Guscott's 19th (one for the Lions) and a belated improvement in Grayson's penalty-kicking. Exit Carling with a knee injury (soon followed by the reluctant Humphreys with a shoulder injury), enter doubt and despondency. After Robert Howley's well-merited debut try it was England who were the happier when Ken McCartney's final whistle blew, by which time Rowell could hardly bear to watch.

They had enjoyed a vast preponderance, in a ratio of 3-1, of the penalties McCartney awarded and also of the scrum put-in, but had failed in the line-out as badly as they did in Paris. Thank goodness, they could reasonably be thinking, there is a month's grace before they have to sort themselves out.

For Wales the visit of the Scots in a fortnight makes improvement more pressing but this was a minor renaissance at the very least. "There is something unpredictable about these young players which is sometimes heart- stopping but I don't want to stifle it," Kevin Bowring, the Wales coach, said. "Sometimes they are a bit fallible as well, but you can't shackle that unpredictability." What Rowell wouldn't give for some of the same...

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), M Bayfield, T Rodber (Northampton), B Clarke (Bath), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacement: P de Glanville (Bath) for Carling, 52.

WALES: J Thomas; I Evans (Llanelli), L Davies (Neath), N Davies, W Proctor (Llanelli); A Thomas (Bristol), R Howley (Bridgend); A Lewis, J Humphreys (Cardiff, capt), J Davies, G O Llewellyn (Neath), D Jones, E Lewis, H Taylor (Cardiff), G Jones (Llanelli). Replacement: G Jenkins (Swansea) for Humphreys, 54. Temporary substitute: S Williams (Neath) for E Lewis, 33-39; Williams for G Jones, 39-h/t.

Referee: K McCartney (Scotland).

Grayson Conversion A Thomas

Five nations table

Scotland 2 2 0 0 35 24 4

England 2 1 0 1 33 30 2

France 2 1 0 1 29 31 2

Ireland 1 0 0 1 10 16 0

Wales 1 0 0 1 15 21 0

Remaining fixtures

February 17 France v Ireland; Wales v Scotland

March 2 Ireland v Wales; Scotland v England

March 16 England v Ireland; Wales v France

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