Regan's targeting of Archer is on the line

FIVE NATIONS COUNTDOWN: England's lineout may be Bristol fashion but some critics argue it is not ship-shape, says Tim Glover
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If there was one area of England's play that was deemed to be in safe hands, it was the second-row partnership of Martin Bayfield and Martin Johnson. The British Lions pair, with a combined weight of 36 stone and, if one were placed on the other's shoulders, a height of 13ft 5in, were considered to be the most effective in the Five Nations, perhaps the world.

As England's uninspired season moves uncomfortably to another momentous match against Scotland tomorrow somewhere along the line, or more specifically the lineout, the game plan has gone badly wrong. Following the defeat against France in Paris and the less than satisfying victory over Wales at Twickenham, Bayfield has been singled out as the player most responsible for the team's spectacular under-achievement in the lineout.

It is a primary source of possession, carrying more weight in the scheme of things than the scrum, and yet England's lineout has thus far been a disaster area. They play at Murrayfield without Bayfield, something that would have seemed inconceivable at the beginning of the year. The selection of Garath Archer is a gamble but at least it gives Mark Regan a more familiar target to aim at. He has had all season for Archer practice at Bristol.

Regan has taken even more criticism than Bayfield. "Lightning" Regan his detractors have nicknamed him, on the grounds that he never strikes twice in the same place. Bayfield is 6ft 10ins but Regan has not been able to find him. The impression gained is that if you were picking a darts team, the Bristol hooker would be on the bench.

Jack Rowell has studied and re-studied the videos and if there is a missing link in the lineout it is not, in the England management's view, down to Regan. After the French fiasco Rowell telephoned Regan to offer some much needed solace. "He said that no-one was blaming me and that boosted my confidence a hell of a lot," Regan said.

He would have needed another help line after the Wales game. If the lineout was bad against France it was even worse against the Welsh. "All the criticism I've had is definitely unfair," Regan said. "There are three parts to a lineout: the hooker to throw the ball; the jumper who has to catch it; and the support players who have to protect him and give him a clean shot at it. In the last two games we haven't done particularly well.

"Against France I saw Martin Bayfield hit, barged and knocked all over the place and he suffered exactly the same against Wales. I threw two pretty bad balls against the Welsh but I was just putting them in the same place I usually do, and Gareth Llewellyn was getting lifted 20 feet in the air. What can I do about that? The next time I threw in I gave the ball a bit more air and it just went clean over the top.

"We need to be a lot more streetwise and we need to train against opposition. When we practised alone we looked fantastic. I put it up and Bayfield caught it every time but in a match it tended to sail over him so there was a problem there somewhere. He didn't seem to be jumping as high but it's an area the whole team has been working at. We've had to build our confidence again in the lineout, and it's not just down to me. The whole pack has got to live in each other's pockets during a game and look after each other. We have been playing by the laws and we've been punished. We've got to be stronger. The lineout is always a jungle."

Fred Howard, the former international referee, believes the lineout is so shambolic it should be abolished. "I can see the purists cringing," Howard wrote in Rugby News," but does even the most committed spectator really want to watch his side win just three clean lineouts per match, as happened in England's first two games?"

The feeling is that in jungle warfare Bayfield, a policeman who is now described as a professional rugby player, was more a saint than a lion and that Archer, aggressive to the point of belligerence, will not be pushed around. The problem is that Archer, like Martin Johnson, is predominantly a front jumper. "It will be very interesting to see how he fares at number four," Brian Hanlon, Bristol's director of coaching, said.

With Simon Shaw injured, Bristol have been playing Archer in the middle of the lineout. "Mark and Garath have been very effective at club level and their timing has been impeccable," Hanlon said. "They can dominate any game in the lineout. International rugby requires a higher level of concentration but if they can remain focused they can do the job.

"I've had a few chats with Mark about the England performances. He's an extremely accurate thrower who can hit the spot. It's just that sometimes I wonder whether he's been aiming at the right spot. Instead of throwing straight at his man he tends to throw down the middle of the lineout, giving every jumper a 50-50 chance. Against Wales Bayfield's ball was taken by Derwyn Jones and if Mark had thrown any higher it would have missed everybody. There was a problem over timing but if Bayfield ended up on his backside or being barged out, that is hardly the fault of Regan."

Some critics think there may be a flaw in Regan's technique but considering that he has been meticulously groomed for this role, a more plausible explanation is that he is suffering by comparison to Brian Moore. No doubt there were many in the RFU hierarchy who were glad to see the back of Moore but Bayfield, for one, will have mourned his retirement. When it came to hitting the bull's eye, Moore was in the Eric Bristow class.

Regan, who is 24, is bigger than Moore and 10 years younger. He was introduced to the game at the age of eight by the Keynsham club and in the England pecking order he has gone through the entire set menu: 16 age group, 18, colts, students, Under-21, emerging players and England A. He made his debut for England A in the 21-20 win over Ireland at Donnybrook last season and established himself as Moore's successor following a successful tour to Australia and Fiji in the summer. And, by profession, Regan is a fork- lift truck driver which, as it happens, is just what England's jumpers need at the moment.