Racing: Victors take on a new burden: Paul Hayward finds the winners in muted mood as they learn to cope with the weight of their support

Click to follow
THEY were a team subdued in victory. Unhappy winners. Another triumph had been achieved over France and yet self-admonishment was taking the place of joy. What it is to be an England player these days.

The post-match mood defined the times England have created for themselves. Rule one at the modern Twickenham is that the side must win. Rule two demands that the opposition be crushed by the quality of England's play. Both tasks must be accomplished, or you can forget the sing-songs and any talk about world hegemony.

Take Will Carling after the game. Flanked by Geoff Cooke, the manager, and Dick Best, England's coach, Carling presented an odd inversion of what a winning captain should be. 'We weren't as fluid as we have been and we were making far too many mistakes,' Carling said. And there you had it: the winner's apology.

Twickenham is not the place it was. Just as the stadium itself is soaring out of the corrugated, military-green structures of its Corinithian past, so new and almost uncarryable expectations attend each England performance. As if to pay due respect to architectural symbolism, the tangible structures and the intangible sense of anticipation have risen together.

There is certainly a mutual dependence between man and building site in this heart-arresting arena. Twickenham's continued expansion requires the team to keep devouring Grand Slams and so maintain heightened media and spectator interest.

As if beating a dramatically improved French side were not enough on Saturday, Carling and his confederates were cast in the role of developers, of PR men, desperately trying to explain a hold-up in the creation of this Olympus.

Before Geoff Cooke, England used to lose a lot. Now they win a lot, and people are drawing comparisons with the magnificent Welsh sides of the 70s. Not so much in terms of play, or success rates, but because the pressure to prevail with grace and polish is equally great.

How Carling must regret letting us goad him into saying England would 'develop' their game beyond the smother-and-strike tactics that brought that first Grand Slam in 1991.

These days Twickenham expects to see not only victories but the ball flung out wide with breathless abandon. When it is, and it fails, as against Australia in the World Cup final, a different sort of grumbling starts up, thus validating John Galsworthy's question: 'What would the English be without their sweet unreasonableness?'

A lot more cheerful on the walk back to Twickenham station, is one answer. There was no singing, only roughly debated post- mortems. We missed Dooley. There were too many mistakes. We were lucky, and so on into the watering holes of Waterloo and beyond.

Success makes you unforgiving, and nobody demonstrates that better than Cooke himself, an unfailingly impressive figure who has encouraged the world's largest rugby-playing nation to embrace rather than shirk the prerequisites of progress. Fitness, confidence, concentration, and a selfless pack instinct, all of which have taken English rugby, jazzed- up kits and all, out of the weekender values that for so long held it back.

Cooke talked about 'error counts' and the 'failure to deal with kicks'. He was 'hardly ecstatic' but merely 'relieved' England won.

In Twickenham's Rose Room, where post-game refreshments are taken, you could see the lighthouse frames of Martin Bayfield, Ben Clarke and Martin Johnson rising glumly out of the sea of guests. As well as taking tea, those talented giants were no doubt contemplating Cooke's video re- runs of the match, and beginning the process of self-examination which all England players are encouraged to undertake under the new system.

In truth, on this form England are beatable, though it is worth remembering that France are, by popular consent, the second-best team in the tournament.

According to simple mathematics, then, England's march should become easier from this point in, though doubtless a few Welsh players would beg to differ after watching Saturday's game.

'I think it'll get harder,' Carling said, perhaps anticipating the renewed appetite for England's visit that will spread through the streets of Cardiff. 'I think there will be more expectation on us from now. We can't sit back, that's for sure.'

Such are the thoughts to go home with, when you are an unhappy winner.

(Photograph omitted)