England's parts must add up to the total game

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY UNION: Carling's espousal of ball-in-the-hand style indicates fresh spirit in new era of professionalism
Click to follow
The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

The flowering of English back play is a hardy-perennial ideal which is no nearer realisation now that South Africa are the opposition than it was when England were preparing for less menacing autumn matches against Romania and Canada a long year ago.

Such talk has become commonplace and therefore cheap, a lot cheaper than the annual pounds 30,000 it will cost the Rugby Football Union for each member of the England squad once the contracts are finally signed next week. This afternoon's match against the World Cup holders before 78,000 at the finished Twickenham persuaded the players to put the grand signing in abeyance.

This reflects the twin track of modern, professional rugby: on the one hand the imperative for players and administrators alike to have their contractual arrangements resolved, and on the other the complementary need to get on with passing, or more likely kicking, an oval ball. The passing and kicking bit has rather been forgotten of late.

The England players are the privileged few in English rugby, because by RFU design they are the only ones this season entitled to receive payment for doing something they formerly did for love. That said, Will Carling and his cohorts are themselves looking enviously at the Springboks and wondering at the disparity with the world champions' purported pounds 140,000.

It is a new world that is not wholly to the benefit of the players themselves. Mega-fixtures such as today's, grossing pounds 2.1m for the RFU, will justify the players' existence as professionals and if - as they might well - they fail, the consequence could be not just to be dropped but to be reduced to a form of sporting penury.

Then there is the wider but associated imperative, the professionals' need to entertain a paying public, and, as this is something England teams have not been too good at, much of the pre-match debate has yet again revolved around whether this may be about to change.

Who can tell? Who would dare predict? By selectorial design England are without the spine of their World Cup side, a choice which, however risky, does at least deprive them of the too-easy fall-back position of achieving victory by bludgeon rather than rapier that has hitherto been too easy for them by half.

One might say literally so. As long as Rob Andrew was at outside-half standing back in that familiar comfort zone, protected by Brian Moore, Dean Richards and the rest, they had little reason - not in their own minds, anyway - of alternatives. Now they have an alternative, so now they must find a way to exploit their exceptional, and exceptionally underused, outside backs.

While it was happening, everyone denied there was a problem. Yet here we are six months after the World Cup and, all of a sudden, everyone agrees that there was.

"Last year we played fairly expansively against Romania and Canada but when it came to the pressure of the Five Nations, and in the World Cup, we did revert to a more conservative game," captain Carling said. "I want to develop this style of ball-in-the-hand against South Africa, in the Five Nations, under that kind of pressure."

Well, who wouldn't? The crashing disappointment of England's World Cup departure against a side - New Zealand - playing a form of total rugby has opened English minds, though today's is another of those games in which the end of winning - and not the means by which it happens - is its own justification. Just like when the All Blacks were booted to defeat in 1993.

So it would be as well to reserve judgement on Mike Catt's prospects as Andrew's outside-half successor until he has experienced a less fraught occasion than this one against opponents for whom he once aspired to play. At least Catt, born and bred in Port Elizabeth, now has the opportunity to let his rugby do the talking for him. His description of Francois Pienaar, the South Africa captain, as an "average" player was ill-judged not as an expression of opinion so much as in its crass timing. If, or probably when, Pienaar, or more likely Ruben Kruger, gets to him today he may have cause for regret.

ENGLAND v SOUTH AFRICA

at Twickenham

J Callard Bath 15 A Joubert Natal

D Hopley Wasps 14 J Olivier Northern Transvaal

W Carling Harlequins, capt 13 J Mulder Transvaal

J Guscott Bath 12 H le Roux Transvaal

R Underwood Leicester 11 C Williams Western Province

M Catt Bath 10 J Stransky Western Province

K Bracken Bristol 9 J van der Westhuizen N Transvaal

J Leonard Harlequins 1 A van der Linde Western Province

M Regan Bristol 2 J Dalton Transvaal

V Ubogu Bath 3 T Laubscher Western Province

M Johnson Leicester 4 J Wiese Transvaal

M Bayfield Northampton 5 M Andrews Natal

T Rodber Northampton 6 R Kruger Northern Transvaal

B Clarke Bath 8 F Pienaar Transvaal, capt

A Robinson Bath 7 F van Heerden Western Province

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland) Kick-off: 2.30 (BBC1)

Comments