On Rugby: England's mission to realise the sum of their talents

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IT SHOULD be no surprise that the fulfilment of England's ambition in the immediate aftermath of their divinely inspired victory over the French should have been attended by a certain amount of disillusionment. There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from Twickenham last week. Either that England, who, in their three victories so far this season have been a few pence short of the full shilling, are a side of quite exceptional ability, capable so often of playing badly well - if that is not too much of a contradiction in terms - or else that they are a team in decline.

As the latter is almost certainly not yet a reality, despite the indifferent form of key players like Rob Andrew, the answer may lie somewhere in between and should be very much clearer when England go to Cardiff in two weeks' time. So assertive throughout their last two championship campaigns, England searched in vain for the right formula last Saturday. An example of their dilemma was the impressive Ian Hunter, stranded in midfield and aimlessly kicking to touch when France, and Pierre Hontas in particular, were trembling at the prospect of having to tackle him.

Whatever the reasons for England's schizophrenia, they are now doing scant justice to their collective talent. The law changes may be partly to blame. England have been forced to make fundamental alterations to a game plan which has successfully repelled all challengers in the championship for the last two seasons. As he made clear in a recent television programme - in which, incidentally, Rob Andrew's debut as a presenter was more praiseworthy than the programme's editorial balance - Dick Best, the England coach, did not have a good word to say about the new ruck and maul laws. He is not alone in that but it was perhaps unfortunate that he chose the South Africans to highlight what he considered to be the most serious deficiencies in the new laws. Far from being abreast of the new laws, the Springboks were at least four years behind the old ones. Their techniques were therefore inadequate to commit enough players to the rucks and mauls and this inevitably led to severe congestion in midfield.

The Wallabies showed how it could and should be done in their mauling of the Barbarians two weeks later. But right or wrong, like them or loathe them, the new laws are with us at least until the end of this season and England must somehow find a way of adapting to them.

Their biggest problem so far has been one of continuity. Even when Dewi Morris broke through in a rare moment of exuberance, the move came to grief a few yards from the line. England would argue that this was a classic fault line in the new laws but closer examination revealed that the fault was England's. If there is a certain injustice in having to surrender possession in such a position, it is surely equally harsh that a wrong decision should go unpunished which was so often the case under the old regulations when possession was nine-tenths of the law.

God may have been an Englishman on Saturday but England's apparently divine right to supremacy in the tight was seriously questioned by the French, who, despite their pre-match fears, appeared indifferent to the disruptive forces at work in England's front row. Wade Dooley's late withdrawal was clearly a factor. There was not enough time to initiate Martin Johnson into the deeper mysteries of the England scrummage and this in turn denied their back row the creative opportunities on which Peter Winterbottom, Mike Teague and Ben Clarke thrive. As it was, Clarke's infusion of energy into the loose proved inspirational, forced, as it so often was, by defensive expediency rather than pre-meditated attack.

England's problems in establishing a secure base up front undoubtedly limited the ambition of the backs, although it should not have been beyond the wit of the threequarters to inflict more damage on a French midfield so grievously stricken by the injuries to both centres, Philippe Sella and Thierry Lacroix.

Jeremy Guscott's half-break which took Hunter and then Jon Webb so close to scoring offered resounding confirmation of the view that, no matter what changes are made to the laws, speed off the mark is as valuable today as it ever was. It was nevertheless the only threatening move from that area of the field where England are so heavily armed with offensive weaponry.

To England the victory, more lasting and ultimately more satisfactory than the high praise that has been heaped on France. Pierre Berbizier knows that this French performance has bought him a little more time as coach but he may not survive a second defeat this season. His faith in his new hooker and captain, Jean-Francois Tordo, was amply repaid. Tordo's steadying influence over his side was as conspicuous as his own play in the loose. His shortcomings as a hooker were circumvented by the simple expedient of Aubin Hueber's persistently crooked feed, but his inability to throw into the line-out is a crippling disadvantage at a time when the opportunities for swift attack have never been better.

The Scots, their next opponents in a fortnight's time, are much more bullish about their line-out than they were after their trial, but the uncertainty about their scrummage remains. Alan Watt's height, so useful to Scotland in the line-out, is fiendishly awkward to squeeze into the front row, especially at loose head, where his bulk must seriously restrict Kenny Milne's line of sight. This may be one of the reasons why the Scottish selectors are employing state- of-the-art technology in an attempt to get Alan Sharp fit for Paris.

But how encouraging it was to see the uninhibited Scottish enterprise behind the scrum against Ireland, and, in particular, the imaginative running of Derek Stark. In wingers at least the Lions selectors will be spoilt for choice.