Hard road ahead for Rowell

Rugby Union: Chris Rea believes victory over Samoa can only be the start for England
Click to follow
The Independent Online
LET us be clear about this. When (it is surely not a matter of if) England beat Western Samoa at Twickenham next Saturday, they will be joining the distinguished company of the North and Midlands in Scotland, the Midlands and the North of England and Cambridge University as sides who have beaten the tourists. So we are not talking big league here. England's performance must be taken in the context of what has been a dismal tour record which not even the draw against a lamentably poor Scottish side can improve.

That is not to suggest that Saturday's international is irrelevant as a development exercise, but to attempt to invest it with any greater importance is ludicrous. No matter how convincing the victory, talk of new dawns would be as premature and ill-informed as it was in the wake of the victory over the Canadians last season. If this is the most imaginative side yet selected by England's current management it does pose the question as to why they have waited so long.

The end of an era, albeit a highly successful one, came with England's World Cup humiliation by the All Blacks. Certain areas, including the entire spine of the team, required urgent attention. It was clear throughout the tournament in South Africa that England's scrummage had to be shored up and that the concept of three No 8s in the back row was unworkable outside the comfort zone of the Five Nations' Championship. Jason Leonard's transfer to the tight-head and Graham Rowntree's installation on the loose are long overdue.

Whether or not Lawrence Dallaglio's selection as an openside flanker is the long-term answer to a position which has failed to attract a suitable tenant since Peter Winterbottom's retirement, only time will tell. There is no doubting Dallaglio's talent, just his ability in a comparatively unfamiliar position to channel the ball in the right direction. Physically he meets the requirements laid down by manager Jack Rowell, and in purely footballing terms he is a better prospect than Ben Clarke or the unfortunate Andy Robinson.

Against the Samoans the back row will have the opportunity to work off an advancing platform, a luxury denied them against South Africa. Here again comparisons will be worthless, and any judgement on England's defensive qualities in this crucial area must be delayed until the sterner tests ahead. What is not in doubt is that England will have five potential ball- winners in the line-out, a veritable pine forest compared to the shrubbery at the Samoan tail.

In attack, Dallaglio and Matt Dawson might be made for each other, the raw power and predatory aggression of the one complementing the lithesome elegance and scorching pace of the new scrum-half. Not since Nigel Melville have England had a player who can pose such a threat to opposition defences from the base of their scrum. Dawson's biggest problem will be knowing when and where to make his moves against back rows infinitely more committed to their job than the Samoans were at Leicester last week.

He is a young man supremely confident in his own ability, but on Saturday his responsibility will be not only to himself but to his partner, Paul Grayson. In his post-selection interviews Grayson made all the right noises, ending on the suitably modest note that the honour was all the greater given that there were so many other pebbles on the beach. The plain truth is, however, that there are few fly-halves capable of performing this key role at international level. He has made huge strides since falling under Ian McGeechan's influence at Northampton, and last week for Midlands against Samoa he played closer to the gain line and tighter to the opposition defence than any fly-half I have watched all season.

But he is too tentative in defence, stemming as much from poor technique as from any lack of enthusiasm for the tackle. Having for so long relied on the impregnable defences of Rob Andrew and Dewi Morris, England will have to work out some alternative strategy to cover for half-backs whose talents lie in other areas. For Grayson, as there was in the early part of his career for Andrew, there is the dual responsibility of leading his backs and kicking his goals.

There is an assumption that converted soccer players like Grayson have an instinctive feel for rugby. Not always. I used to feel that Tony Ward, the Irish outside-half and a sublimely gifted footballer, never fully understood the rugby game. Playing for the 1980 Lions against South Africa at Newlands, probably the most heroic game he has ever played, Ward was many people's choice as the man of the match. He was unquestionably the central figure, kicking a Lions record 18 points. Unfortunately the Springboks scored five tries, some the result of Ward's inability to employ the correct tactics. Instead of kicking the Lions to victory, which he came so close to doing, he kicked them to defeat. Grayson, though, has time on his side, and in McGeechan the shrewdest of mentors. What he and England must realise is that next Saturday is only the start of what is likely to be a long and tortuous path back to respectability.

Comments