England take a short cut

Jack Rowell's long-term strategy has been shelved in the pragmatic search for success in Scotland. Steve Bale reports

Lest it be forgotten, England are still going for the Triple Crown, a mythical prize that was usually deemed sufficient for the illustrious Welsh sides of the 1970s even when - as they often did - they came to grief in France. As it happens, they also lost now and then in Scotland.

What the England of those dog-days would have given for such a consolation prize. Hindsight reveals the absurd imbalance of perception in modern English rugby, a divine-right theory every bit as baleful and even obnoxious as that which afflicted the Welsh followers of two decades ago, that the Triple Crown will no longer suffice.

This is not to excuse apparently incoherent lurches of tactical, strategic or selection policy but merely to explain, at a timely moment, with Will Carling's team blocking Scotland's route to the Grand Slam (and Triple Crown) on Saturday, how gloriously imperfect a science rugby is. Not in its preparation - heaven knows, England keep on about how well they train - but in its playing.

That, you might say, is its joy and instead of carping perhaps we should celebrate that after all, like the oval ball itself, there remains an essential unpredictability to upset the dreary certainties many of us imagined had taken hold in the European rugby of the 1990s. We do not even know, not for certain, how the supposedly predictable English will play at Murrayfield, whatever signal the reselection of Dean Richards may have given.

If this is their single most significant choice of the season, it is only partly because of the man himself and the claustrophobic type of rugby he both plays and represents. In fact, there were perfectly sound reasons for his original omission, as he well knows from being shown the personalised video of his contribution to the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in Cape Town eight months ago.

On that high-speed, highly strung occasion England's No 8 was, relatively speaking, nowhere and, since Jack Rowell as manager/coach had determined that English aspirations should be global as well as European, he quite reasonably decided he needed something faster and fitter to take his team towards his, and their, nirvana.

So much for long-termism. It always used to be said that the best long- term planning was the short-term expedient of winning the next match, but this was a philosophy which the 1995 All Blacks specifically disproved by regularly losing matches as they experimented along the way to the World Cup.

It caused ferocious criticism in New Zealand, so much so that as late as December 1994 Laurie Mains, the coach, retained his position by just one vote when the NZ Rugby Union council took a vote. The parallels with England are evident: Rowell has been subjected to an unprecedentedly ugly campaign of vituperation in some parts of the media falling not far short of the sort of thing that subverted his football counterparts Graham Taylor and Bobby Robson.

Thus if things go further awry against Scotland Rowell's position will be under greater pressure than ever. Privately, he is already dismayed at his predicament and the effect on his loved ones, and we may be sure that the last thing he will welcome is advice from the press about how to get out of it.

But actually it would be - or at any rate would have been - fairly simple. If there were one thing he could have done to defuse the situation, it would have been to acknowledge straightforwardly that the sequence of his selections, in particular that of Richards, has not been as consistent as he pretends and that they are not - certainly Richards is not - all part of some grand design for the future.

Because it is as plain as the West Stand at Twickenham that, by recalling Richards as pack leader, the manager is looking at the here and now, adopting downright pragmatism - though this, perhaps rashly, assumes that he is not planning to persist with the long-in-the-tooth Tiger until the 1999 World Cup, when Richards will be 36. This is not so much present incoherence as a tacit admission that Richards's exclusion - and, remember, he made the bench in Paris only because Tim Rodber withdrew - was premature.

As Rowell himself has often said, playing conditions in the Five Nations' Championship are far removed from those in Australia and South Africa (though, curiously, remarkably similar to New Zealand's). On that basis, it was quite wrong to judge Richards' value now on the basis of his performance on a glorious day at Newlands.

But then Rowell was not to know that the rest of his post-World Cup forwards - especially once another old stager, Brian Moore, had also been dropped - would find it so hard to generate between them the leadership and discipline that Richards provided. In this respect, the Wales match was an absolute nadir.

Herein lies Rowell's problem, and it is both abstract and concrete. To take the latter first, the Scots, driven by different imperatives, know precisely what they are doing because they have no practical alternative. Their physical inferiority ineluctably dictates the need to take the ball away from contact, away from tackles, into open spaces, at breakneck pace.

This, purportedly, has been England's "aspiration" ever since Rowell became manager nearly two years ago. But, that said, there is an obsession in the English game for taking the ball into contact, into tackles, into confined spaces, in slow motion, which is historic and intrinsic as well as present-day - and no one seems able to switch to Scottish mode even when English mode is manifestly not working.

Which brings us to the abstract. On Rugby Special on Sunday Rowell did not accept that the buck stopped solely with him and, however much you may argue with that contentious assertion, it is a truism of international rugby that most - perhaps all - the great, winning teams (and not their coaches) run themselves.

Look at the Wales teams of the 1970s and ask who made the decisions that won all those matches. The players. Look at England's Grand Slam team of 1980 and ask the same. The players. Look even at the England teams of Rowell's predecessor, Geoff Cooke, and ask the same. Cooke may have done wonders for England but the answer is still the same. It was the players who won Grand Slams in 1991, 1992 and 1995; it is up to the players to win the Triple Crown in 1996.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

£32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

£27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you a recent graduate loo...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine