James Lawton: Bergamasco and Phillips the lone survivors in northern hemisphere's betrayal of talent

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The Independent Online

Thank heavens for Mirco Bergamasco, the little bursting star of the nascent Italian game, and Mike Phillips, the big, third-string scrum half of Wales. They were Grade 1 winners caught up in a selling plate.

They brought optimism and life to a rugby graveyard. Without the glint of their talent where would we be at the end of a Six Nations Championship which represented the final, crushing evidence that the northern hemisphere pulled off a monstrous hoax when England, after beating France in the semi-final, won the World Cup three years ago?

We would have to say that significant development in the game had petered out just about everywhere north of the Transvaal. That big trophy was secured by England in what now seems another age, and no one can say that the triumph did not represent a historic breakthrough. But three years on, the story is of betrayal.

Both the English and the French have regressed catastrophically - that was the confirmed message of a Saturday that was, in terms of sustained quality and proper discipline, mocked by the word "super".

Now the hunt is on for the head of England head coach, Andy Robinson. Now there is talk of unpolished diamonds scattered about an English game that has proved itself utterly incapable of building on the World Cup win - or even giving much of a hint of the best of itself.

Maybe Robinson, such a key figure in the World Cup success, has to go, or at the very least dramatically reshape his coaching team's approach: time can be the cruellest arbiter of a coach's work, turning what was once an irresistible message into so much cant.

Certainly the argument that England are too near to a World Cup to make significant changes in their approach is absurd. This is a team stripped of self-belief and conviction. In Paris they were dismaying in their ineptitude, against the Irish on Saturday there was an even more depressing reality: they just weren't good enough.

At last Robinson fought off the temptation to bring on Lawrence Dallaglio, yesterday's hero, whose role for most of the season, like it or not, has been to undermine the authority of the beleaguered captain, Martin Corry. Robinson's reward was maybe Corry's best performance of a nightmare season; but again we are talking too little, too late.

Bernard Laporte, having won the prize that had become quite empty long before the conclusion of Saturday's much hyped programme, doesn't have Robinson's pressure. He is shielded by a title, but any serious prospect of the French resisting New Zealand, even on their home soil in next summer's World Cup, was surely exposed as an illusion by an injury-weakened side. Wales, inspired by Phillips and steadied, as always, by Stephen Jones, played the rugby of verve and conviction. The French played from memory, and not too much of it was in working order.

The irony here was that Italy, under the prompting of Pierre Berbizier, showed the effect of a new coach of knowledge and flair facing a fresh challenge. The Italians, with the emerging Bergamasco, are bounding along the road of progress, and the Scots, with their relatively minuscule playing population, are also showing what can be done with a little belief and a return to the fundamentals of winning rugby. The Scots have been honing performance rather than gloating about improved results, and that was their salvation against the wonderfully spirited and at times inspired Italians.

Scotland's coach, Frank Hadden, was understandably elated by survival on the banks of the Tiber. His team were put under severe pressure by the marvellous spontaneity of Bergamasco's try after the perfectly realised chip of Ramiro Pez, but their response was strong and purposeful and never less than intelligently pitched.

Only Scotland and Italy can draw uncomplicated pleasure and satisfaction from the tournament, and if Ireland were understandably pleased at taking the Triple Crown the final exhilaration of their coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, had to be set against the number of times the television camera caught him ringing his hands at the failure of his team to see off England.

All of this leaves us with the easiest of questions: where lay the greatest betrayal. It is surely in Wales.

England's rugby players, as well as their cricketers, have been criticised for a lurch into triumphalism, but not all the journey was their fault. They couldn't be blamed for driving the nation half-mad with joy by winning the World Cup and the Ashes series. What happened in Wales after the brilliant Grand Slam success was a different matter entirely. The manner of the removal of the winning coach, Mike Ruddock, was stomach-wrenching, and all attempts at explanation at every level have been so unsatisfactory they might have made Brutus feel a little queasy.

What Wales had, even after the injury decimation that left them so weakened before that first, distorting game against England, was something precious in sport: regained conviction and genuine motivation.

It was a rising graph after the good impact in the World Cup. The big English battalion won all right, but not before a terrifying ambush by the Welsh in the quarter-final. For many Wales' triumph in the Six Nations was a logical consequence, and a thrilling reaffirmation of the nation's innate ability to produce players of extraordinary talent and a feel for a game that is in their blood.

Now, after the macabre pantomime of Ruddock's exit and the excruciating double talk of his successor and former aide Scott Johnson, that sense of reborn Welsh rugby came again when the French were made to look such threadbare, time-expired champions.

The potential of the Welsh to play inspired, running rugby, to carry the moment as brilliantly as they did in Paris last season, may yet be the northern hemisphere's best chance of at least ruffling the superb All Blacks and their sensational playmaker Dan Carter.

But first they must prove that they have the wit, and the character, to organise a mayhem-free chapel tea party.

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