Ghost of '90 still haunts England

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: Rowell has broadened the vision but Steve Bale fears Carling's men may revert to type
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The Independent Online
The last time England played Scotland for the Grand Slam it was at Murrayfield: they lost, and the effects have been felt ever since. Even now, five years on and with a salmagundi of subsequent achievements, English players keep harking back to that dread day.

So as England and Scotland size each other up in preparation for Saturday's great event at Twickenham where the winner will again take all, 1990 - what went wrong for England and right for Scotland - has inevitably recurred as a theme.

In one of his books Will Carling called the 13-7 defeat which gave the Scots the Five Nations' Championship, Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Calcutta Cup as "the big turning-point for me as captain", though the more obvious turning point was in the way his team played the game.

This week he has been back on familiar ground. "We learned a lot and it hurt," Carling said. "I hope a little bit of the hurt will carry on for the five of us who are still in the team and give a little extra edge to our play." Guscott, Rory Underwood, Andrew and Moore - though not Dean Richards, who was injured - would say amen to that.

What the desperate disappointment of Murrayfield 1990 did for England was turn them in on themselves and make them so introspectivly self-reliant that they brooked no criticism - the "no one likes us but we don't care" syndrome - and also brooked no opposition, in the sense that whoever dared to stand in England's way was simply steamrollered out of it.

The message the England players took from that seminal defeat was that the exuberant rugby that had seen them to handsome victories over Ireland, France and Wales had ceased to have any justification as soon as it had failed just once.

This ignored the fact that the one breach England made in the Scottish defence was by long-range handling, and also that it was not England's strategy that was at fault but, as some of them later admitted, their attitude. Scotland may have eked out their wins over Ireland, France and Wales but they were a far better team, certainly on that day, than England expected.

Now that the new, or anyway newish, England have publicly espoused a rugby of movement and necessary risk, it is curious to survey the aftermath of 1990 and realise how, even in doing the Grand Slam and reaching the World Cup final in 1991, England were content to underperform in the interests of winning.

The end was thought to justify the means though Dick Best, for one, had his doubts, understanding the fear of failure, the exigency of winning and so on by suggesting that they would have a better chance of achieving their goals by liberating themselves from self-imposed restraint. At the time Best was the England B coach; six months later he was the England coach.

That one defeat by Scotland had much to answer for. At a stroke, or at any rate after a few months' post-traumatic contemplation, the English players were persuaded that the best way to success was the low-risk road. It was a typically English reversion to type, the same sort of thing having been good enough to win their predecessors England's previous Grand Slam in 1980.

Where England went in at Murrayfield enjoying the benefit of three wins handsomely obtained, they came to the French decider of '91 with the more prosaic advantage of three wins gained through the attrition of forward power rather than the inspiration of incisive back play and forward power.

In failing to do the Grand Slam England had scored 12 tries; in actually doing it they scored five. After being the butt of Antipodean sarcasm as, for all the world like a Panzer tank in the desert, they continued the grind towards the World Cup final, they then repeated the Slam with a metamorphosed style that produced more tries (15) in 1992 than anyone had scored in the championship since the Thirties.

Even accepting that this is fairly ancient history, there is an enduring lesson to be derived from the struggle for supremacy between two types of rugby, both of which in the different contexts of successive seasons worked well - if, by worked well, we mean they won matches.

Yet even while England were using the bludgeon in 1991 they were trying to persuade us there was more to their game than grunt and grapple. "The myth with England is that we don't play 15-man rugby, but I think we have played as much as anyone," Carling says in his authorised biography in a section on the 1991 championship.

That was then. Nowadays the players would have to admit that they used a tightly restricted form of physical force because they knew, more or less, that it would be irresistible against physically inferior opponents.

It is the triumph of the Jack Rowell regime that, though the present manager/coach could apply precisely the same logic to the present side, he has the broader vision that England so clearly lacked at the turn of the decade.

Thus the English response to the more recent disappointments of last seasons and, most especially, to the crushing second-Test defeat in South Africa last June has been precisely the opposite: to expand rather than contract. They talk a good game as well as they ever did but we can now also take their word for it that they really do wish to be judged by deeds not words.

Not everyone is convinced. One old acquaintance making his way from Cardiff Arms Park after England had won there last month demanded to know what difference there was between that England display and the one that had squeezed Wales dry there four years earlier? He would say that, wouldn't he, but you have to be honest and say there were similarities.

But more persuasive is a more striking reality, constantly repeated by Rowell. In World Cup matches England, whether or not they complete their third Grand Slam in five years, could not hope to get past the likes of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand - or even France on firm going - by playing rugby that is merely good enough to win Five Nations matches.

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