March of the dominators

Chris Rea assesses England's strengths and finds little comfort for Wales
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The Independent Online
WE HAVE passed this way before: the responsibility to entertain versus the duty to win. The answer remains the same. There are two primary aims in any sporting contest - to win and to enjoy - and as it is only a masochist who derives pleasure from painful defeat, winning is what matters. Politically incorrect maybe, but undeniably true.

If there were those at Twickenham last Saturday who felt short-changed by England's tactics and by a performance which they considered lacked artistry and romance, then so be it. Few left the ground dissatisfied with the level of entertainment and fewer still believed that England could have played much better.

When one side so completely dominates another there is little room for romance, much less the kind of artistry produced by counter-attack born of desperation. For England to have changed course would have been as senseless and as potentially dangerous as matching crossplys upfront with radials behind. In a sport as physically confrontational as rugby, passion and commitment are basic requirements for survival at this level. England had an abundance of both, France did not.

It was once written of Michel Crauste, one of France's greatest ever forwards, that he was a crucial member of the side "as much for his terrifying rage in battle as for his extreme kindness to his fellow man". The two are not mutually exclusive any more than furious aggression and discipline, yet at Twickenham France paid a terrible price for the almost complete sacrifice of one for the other. But indiscipline, as they discovered to their cost, comes in a number of guises and by stifling national fervour and their natural exuberance, they were lured into committing a ruinously high number of infringements.

That the French were unable to make much of even the frugal rations on offer has been attributed in the main to the inexperience of their half- backs. Certainly France, knowing the doubts about the mobility and agility of England's back-row leviathans, would have wanted to attack them further out. And both Guy Accoceberry and Christophe Deylaud would surely have been under instruction to begin the bombardment of Mike Catt as soon as possible. In neither area, however, did they begin to inconvenience England, whose corrosive surges had early on eaten into the very soul of the opposition.

For the French, courage and commitment tend to be expressed in personal recklessness and individual panache. Take that away and you destroy their collective spirit. Pierre Berbizier is not the first to make that discovery, but his problem now is to restore the radiance to a side scarred by the savage completeness of last Saturday's defeat. However much truth there is in the Anglo-Saxon conspiracy theory being peddled by the French, the only thing that matters is that they themselves believe it and until they can exorcise that particular demon, they will never conquer England.

But who will? Since the start of the decade England have played 22 matches in the Five Nations' Championship and have lost just four. That should stand as a chilling warning to Scotland, Ireland and Wales, whose combined resources in terms of manpower cannot match those of England. Ireland, for whom victory in two successive games against the English had given them ideas far above their station, were not on the same planet at Lansdowne Road last month. Nor, despite their bullish insistence to the contrary, were Wales at Twickenham last year. Four years ago, England marched sullenly to the National Stadium and equally morosely left it, having accomplished the job they came to do and become the first England side to win on the ground since 1963. They arrived in much better spirits two years later but suffered the indignity of a defeat which, like the one against Scotland in 1990 and the two most recent reverses against Ireland, still rankles.

Next Saturday England go to Cardiff with greater maturity than they possessed in 1991 and a better side than the one they fielded in 1993. Wales, who must despair of ever escaping from those wearisome exercises in self-justification to a demanding and increasingly cynical public, have been forced to enter a period of realistic assessment. The limitations imposed on them by injury and defections have forced them to accept that they can be no more hopeful of victory against England on Saturday than they were at Parc des Princes a fortnight ago, nor can they take any more positive steps towards achieving it.

Their tactics will once again revolve around the ball-winning abilities of their locks Derwyn Jones and Gareth Llewellyn backed up by Hemi Taylor in the line-out, a well-organised defence and the reliable goal- kicking of Neil Jenkins. To this can be added the nagging accuracy of Robert Jones's kicking from the base of the scrum which, in combination which Jenkins's murderously high punts, might perhaps induce panic in the hitherto placid international life of Mike Catt.

Against that, the England scrummage which, before the start of the championship, appeared to be a fruitful area for exploitation by their opponents, has proved to be disappointingly barren for Ireland and France. If Wales are unable to win possession for themselves they are surely not going to get it from England, whose ball retention has taken possessiveness to the point of obsession. No matter how well prepared the Welsh back row and their midfield are for the sustained assault of England's monstrous regiment of forwards, they will surely buckle in much the same way as the Irish and French have already done this season.

And now there is something else to worry about. Rob Andrew, who began his international career 10 years ago as a runner and then entered a prolonged and more reclusive period as a kicker, has reinvented himself as a tightrope artist, balancing the one with the other with a rare degree of vision and judgement. It is a dangerous game he is playing but so far it is working a treat and two of England's championship tries - Will Carling's at Lansdowne Road and Jeremy Guscott's against France - were the direct result of Andrew's breaks. Opposition back rows will ignore him at their peril, as they will a central attack which, with Carling re-invigorated by Guscott's return to the side, is as potent as any in world rugby. And with Catt's liberated running from full-back, England have many more points along their cutting edge.

Wales may not have enough fingers to stick in the dike, their chief hope resting on the fact that England's record in Cardiff is almost as bad as the Scots in Paris, where they last won before many of the present side were born 26 years ago. After nine games without a win, two consecutive victories, even against opponents as modest as Canada and Ireland, have come as a mighty relief to the Scottish team and their beleaguered coaches. Gavin Hastings's goal- kicking was spot-on against Ireland last Saturday and was the principal difference between the two sides, although there were encouraging signs from the forwards that there are more of them willing and able to play with the ball in their hands rather than at their feet.

Despite their record at Parc des Princes, the Scots have on a number of occasions played well enough to win, their forwards producing storming displays in 1983 and again two years ago when their line-out triumvirate of Reed, Cronin and Weir provided plentiful possession for backs who were sadly incapable of profiting from it. Chances against the French in Paris are few and far between and for every opinion expressed that the grievous damage done to French morale by England cannot possibly be repaired in time, there is the counter and, in this World Cup year possibly the more persuasive argument, that the Scots will be made to suffer for France's humiliation at Twickenham last Saturday.