England's limited ambition

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SEVENTY-FIVE per cent flat and uninspired, the rest vibrant, spectacular and offering some hope that all is not completely lost. The 1996 Five Nations' Championship was neatly encapsulated in the match at Twickenham last Saturday. Seventy minutes of low-quality tedium followed by 10 minutes of high-class entertainment. Understandably, perhaps, the new-age players have embraced the concept of professionalism and its tangible rewards rather more enthusiastically than they have accepted the responsibilities of their new-found status. Their minds have been elsewhere for most of the season.

But while the championship was grinding along with a major attitude problem, the Sri Lankans were joyously dismantling the long-held tenets of one-day cricket and the three best footballing sides in England had established themselves in the top positions in the Premiership. Winning and entertaining are not therefore mutually exclusive at the top level.

One wonders, however, whether there is room for both in rugby's philosophy. It has been a dispiriting Five Nations - the poorest for many years - confirmed by the fact that England, a side we are for ever being told is in transition, should have won not only a Triple Crown, but also the championship. That they should have done so by scoring just three tries and that the total number of tries scored was submerged beneath the weight of penalties kicked is a sorry reflection on the way the game is being played. It has much less to do with the game itself, which is being shown in a more spectacular light in the Super 12 series now being played in the southern hemisphere.

Piffle, say those Flat Earthists who believe that there is far too much energy spent in the praise of others and not enough in support of ourselves. Never mind that the southern hemisphere has held the world championship since its inception and that those countries are continuing to take the game into areas never remotely considered in Britain, a fact which will be conclusively proved yet again during the summer tours.

Fortunately, when it comes to self-justification and excuses we are the undisputed champions of the world and as happened after the World Cup the lessons will conveniently be consigned to history. The French have succeeded in turning World Cup wine into European water. Having come within a couple of inches of reaching the final in South Africa last June, they have been crushed by the heaviest of sporting millstones, selectorial lunacy; the madness that forced the gloriously extrovert Abdel Benazzi from the back row into the near anonymity of the second.

The Scots, who still manage to play up to and, in some cases, beyond their means, have no tight forwards, no goal-kicker and are over-reliant on a finely blended loose trio and a pair of half-backs who blossomed through- out the championship. If Gregor Townsend with his high-tension performances was the star, Bryan Redpath's less obvious skills were equally compelling.

Only Rob Howley made a greater impact than those two. He was direct, pugnacious and continually productive and not since Terry Holmes has there been a more commanding Welsh presence. The mystery is why it has taken so long for his talents to be recognised. The national team of the future may well be built around him and there is more genuine cause for optimism than last year. It was one of the more curious anomalies that, after the Scottish match, they appeared as a side that had lost without really being beaten. It is a mark of their increasing self-belief and rising confidence that they came back from that and from the humiliation of defeat against Ireland to beat France.

That is more than can be said for Ireland. They played with spirit at Twickenham and there was a spell in the first half with the ball in the air and the thundering hooves of the pack underneath when it was quite like old times. But of the home countries Ireland have by far the longest to travel.

The claim from England's connections is that they are closer to their destination now than they were at the beginning of the season and in so far as they won the championship that is true. As the season progressed, however, England fell back on their traditional strengths. But as their players discovered during the World Cup, tradition does not sustain and develop performance. The pack, though, is beginning to take shape, albeit moulded by the past master Dean Richards; Graham Rowntree, Mark Regan and Lawrence Dallaglio will be better players next season. But what is good enough to conquer Europe is hopelessly inadequate for world domination. Yet from the railing both inside and outside the England camp at the relentless criticism of their style of play, it would seem that many are content for England to remain a big fish in a little pond. They are capable of so much more.

The problem is that by their lack of imagination and innovation - and the disease spreads far below national level - so many of the more creative arts are falling steadily into disrepair. What may be right in terms of results is wrong in terms of evolution. Little by little the technicians in the game's finer arts have been pushed into the background, their skills eroded by lack of use. It was clear last Saturday that even when England attempted to expand their game their backs were unable to contrive openings until the result was beyond doubt.

An entire generation of backs is growing up in a school which demands discretion and self-imposed inhibition. Jon Sleightholme, on the rare occasions when he had the ball in his hands, imbued those around him with a refreshing enthusiasm and Matt Dawson, given the right signals from the top, has the all-round game to assert himself at scrum-half. And if England are to change their ways, that is as good a place as any to start.