England's backward step

Chris Rea explains how the All Blacks exposed flaws in the domestic game
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The Independent Online
OF THE many assessments made in the aftermath of England's semi- final defeat, none was wider of the mark than the assertion that the only difference between the sides had been Jonah Lomu. The differences were as wide as the distance between the two countries themselves and had as much to do with attitude as personnel.

Lomu merely emphasised that gulf but he did not create it. Had Marc Ellis, another of New Zealand's clutch of wonderfully intuitive young players, been on the left wing, he would have had three of the four tries scored by Lomu.

There was nothing better in the entire tournament and nothing which more accurately reflected the philosophical differences between the countries than the pass by Graeme Bachop which set up Josh Kronfeld's try against England. The fact that it didn't even go to hand was an irrelevance. At that speed and in that position - 10 metres inside the All Blacks' 22 - all that mattered was that Walter Little had as much time and space as he needed to launch the attack. Jeremy Guscott has been blamed for missing the tackle but one does not expect to have to defend for dear life inside the opposition 22.

That surely is the point. While the All Blacks have been liberated spirits, revelling in their youth, strength and skill and encouraged to play as the mood takes them, England have been playing the percentages. It has been dull, it has been predictable and, most important, it has been a failure. Even if England had beaten France in that tedious play-off it would not have camouflaged their inadequacies. Perversely, had they and not Australia lost in the final seconds of the quarter-final, they would have been spared the humiliation of the following week and would have escaped the savage criticism.

Talk of a new style has proved to be no more than that. The management were right in their belief that England would have to expand their game if they were to succeed here. But having identified the problem they have been incapable of solving it. Their game, as it has been for the past seven years of plenty, has been wholly dependent on the absolute control of the forwards. Deny them that and England are reduced to the ordinary and, as they were last week, relegated to the ranks of the second-raters.

Only Dewi Morris has performed consistently and, against Australia, above his known form, but unless he has a late change of heart, his intention to retire at the end of this tournament means that he will be lost to the game. Nor will England be able to rely on Rob Andrew's phenomenal kicking accuracy in four years' time. In the forwards, Ben Clarke worked tirelessly in a position in which he never looked comfortable and Jason Leonard stood firm in a rapidly disintegrating scrummage. Otherwise, it was the English legs, not their hearts, which appeared to be made of oak. There was a sluggishness in their play, a lethargy in thought and deed which emphasised their tactical shortcomings. Had the England management followed their instincts rather than the advice of the senior players, they might have partially repaired the damage and in the process prepared for the future by selecting fresher, young legs in the play-off against France. They might also have chosen Ian Hunter to mark Lomu rather than Tony Underwood, who could be permanently scarred by the experience.

As disappointingly negative and prosaically dull as England's tactics were, the fault lies not with Jack Rowell and his assistants but with English club rugby. The style and attitude adopted by the All Blacks at international level are the same as those in the provincial game in New Zealand. It was always a forlorn hope that England's players could, in such a short time, be able to adapt their game to cope with the demands of the World Cup. Of the 10 First Division sides in the Courage League only those players from Wasps and Sale would have any idea of what Rowell sought to achieve. Even so, it was apparent from an early stage that England had compromised their plans for expansion and had reverted to type.

Scotland, alone of the four home countries, played to their potential, although the concession of that last-minute try to France will rankle for some time to come. Had they met them in the quarter-final they would surely have beaten Ireland, who did at least have the consolation of playing as well, for 40 minutes, as any side against the All Blacks. It was as fine a display as the Irish have produced for some years yet, dispiritingly, they still conceded more than 40 points.

Set against the wretchedness of Wales, however, Ireland' s problems are insignificant. As the vultures gathered at the final debriefing to pick over the entrails of yet another inglorious Welsh campaign, the mood was not one of anger or even bewilderment but of profound sadness that a once- great rugby nation should have been brought so low. So many of the questions, so many of the responses, were repetitions of the inquest held four years ago when Wales had also failed to progress beyond the pool stage. An incestuous domestic structure lacking challenge and variety and choking a game which cannot break free from the straitjacket of parochialism; the need to expose the top players to the outside world, where the pace of change long ago outstripped an administration content to live in and to trade on the country's glorious past. It was old hat perched on top of new talking heads.

Alex Evans, given the impossible mission of transforming European chumps into world champs is an honest and honourable man with that refreshing Antipodean sense of realism. He has done a remarkable job with Cardiff and is unquestionably a fine coach. Yet even he appeared to be entering the fool's paradise which has entrapped and beguiled so many in Wales during the past decade. His insistence that his side had played with passion, intelligence and no little skill in their defeat by Ireland was a masterpiece of self-delusion.

It had been a dreadful performance, easily the worst in the tournament, with scarcely one redeeming feature and in stark contrast to what we have seen from other countries, and what in the bold new future unfolding before, us the rugby public will come to expect.

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