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.

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