England come to the feast promising a new style and boasting the players to carry it off. France with the side which created one of the wonders of the modern age when Philippe Saint-Andre scored the "try from the end of the earth" to secure a series victory in New Zealand last summer. And Ireland, bless 'em, have come with a running outside-half. Have they taken leave of their senses? On Saturday, England, who have lost their last two matches against Ireland, visit Lansdowne Road with a full-back who has recently been introduced to the position, and the home nation have chosen to confront him with a player whose reputation has been built on his abilities as a runner.
Mike Catt may still be made to sweat on Saturday, but not the buckets that might have dripped off him had he been underneath Eric Elwood's murderous fusillade. I am as bewildered by England's decision to omit Paul Hull as the player is himself. He could
have played for his club last week and would have done so happily had he believed his position at full-back in the national side depended upon it. Now he is not even on the bench and the only conclusion to be drawn is that the selectors have a different view of his abilities and his performances in South Africa than the rest of us.
Catt's selection is being interpreted as a further sign of England's intention to run themselves and their opponents into the ground. But the only difference between this England side and their recent predecessors is the recognition that if they are to have a chance of capturing the World Cup they must extend their horizons beyond the forward- orientated game of the past. There is as yet little evidence to suggest that they can. The Canada game proved nothing except to remind us that, with enough possession, England can run, pass and score tries. But so can most good sides.
Jack Rowell has discovered that attitudes are so deeply entrenched that the retraining programmes are taking an age to sink in. Even then he cannot be sure that the players can adapt to the new ideas. As the Australians proved when in their pomp two or three seasons ago, it is not so much the knowledge of what to do that counts as an understanding of when to do it. At Lansdowne Road on Saturday we may get a clearer picture of how far England have advanced.
They come to the championship with a scrummage which is secure but not in the least threatening. Their back row, though physically awesome, are too similar in style, and recycling of the ball is not high on their list of priorities. They could also be exposed if the pace quickens, as it might well do in the French game, but going forward, they will be the very devil to hold. England also have a line-out which looks impervious to all but the most skulduggerous assault.
England will seek to dominate their opponents through their forwards, as they have throughout their rise to the front rank of rugby. That is what they do best. Only time will tell whether they have the instinctive knowledge and the highly sophisticated skills required to play the wider game against the better-organised defensive systems. In Jeremy Guscott they have the player every other country in the world covets. One exquisitely timed pass or an electrifying burst from him can destroy a year's plotting on the drawing board. His reunification with Will Carling could herald the rebirth of the glories the two have shared in the past.
England also appear to be settled at half-back. Rob Andrew, for all his admiration of Dewi Morris, may be even more appreciative of Kyran Bracken's speed of pass. Andrew's renaissance at fly-half, coupled with his extraordinary success as a goal-kicker, is plain. His temperament, forged in the fires of 61 internationals and in the ferocity of the debate over his worthiness to be England's fly-half throughout his 10 years at this level, can now withstand the worst indignities concocted by his opponents.
Which brings us back to Lansdowne Road and Ireland's preference for Paul Burke over Eric Elwood. Having so often sat staring in wonderment at Ireland's crusading zeal and having so many times witnessed the triumph of their spirit over superior powers, I can only believe that Moss Keane will be elected chairman of the Temperance Society before Ireland will abandon their tried and trusted formula against the English.
Ireland's front row of Popplewell, Wood and Clohessy, which received such critical acclaim following the Barbarians' victory over the Springboks is clearly the platform from which they hope to release their promising young backs. But Popplewell himself has sensibly made the point that too much cannot yet be expected of a front row still in its infancy as a unit.
Like the Scots, the Irish are at their most effective with the ball and their opponents at their feet. They have the basic equipment to ruck, they have the scrummaging power to weaken and they have the line-out height to disrupt.
But they are still beset by the old weaknesses, and if the mental blocks against running the ball are being lifted, a number of the physical difficulties remain. Even so, Ireland retain the capacity to surprise, especially if they can revert to their ownuniquely disruptive style.
They have home advantage against their two most difficult opponents, England and France, and should at the very least profit from the disarray in Scotland and Wales.
Wales's private grief in recent weeks has provoked an outburst of public sympathy. Pillaged by the professional code and ravaged by injury they have done remarkably well to find 15 fit players.
Their misfortunes have,of course, lifted the burden of expectation which invariably falls on them. No one seriously believes they can beat France on Saturday, and with a back row as cumbersome as that which they have been forced to field on the ground where they last won 20 years ago, there is every reason to fear the worst.
The Welsh game nowadays is built on structured defence, containment and Neil Jenkins's goal-kicking. Gone are the strutting confidence and the individual artistry of the past. In its place is deliberate set-piece pragmatism and, despite their travails, agrowing belief and sense of purpose. Having come to terms with their position lower down the world scale, the task now is to improve upon it. There were some who thought they had detected the first signs of that improvement against the Springboks, but for Wales to survive intact throughout a championship series followed by a World Cup in South Africa demands physical and mental strength they do not possess.
France, on the other hand, have both. In the past two seasons they have accomplished what no one but the Australians could contemplate: successful tours to South Africa and to New Zealand. As a result, they have allied to their intuitive brilliance and confidence a resilience and self-discipline which have moulded them into a formidable side capable of winning the World Cup and certainly good enough to carry off the Five Nations' Championship. The match of the series will be their visit to Twickenham, aground they dislike every bit as much as the English loathe Cardiff.
Scotland, too, must visit Twickenham, which has yielded them a niggardly brace of victories since 1938. The Scots' capacity for self-destruction is matched only by their ability to confound critics. But, despite the successes of their "A" side against the Springboks and the Italians, there is a deep sense of foreboding. In the fury of fingers pointing accusingly at Gavin Hastings in the aftermath of the Springbok defeat, many overlooked the abject failure of the captain's most experienced lieutenants. Very seldom did Hastings receive the support he deserved and might reasonably have expected.
The selectors' reaction has been predictably savage, but nine games without a victory have had a baleful effect on team morale. Their selection policy is in ruins and they are now in danger of losing that most potent of all weapons, the fanatical passionof nationalism. Even if the side so completely recast for Saturday's match against Canada displays the spirit conspicuously lacking against the Springboks, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they possess neither the physical dimensions up front northe creativity behind to improve upon their unenviable position in last year's championship.Reuse content