Richards fit for an Irish finale

FIVE NATIONS
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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

Dean Richards was perfectly happy for his twisted knee to cause him to miss last Sunday's England training session but yesterday there was no escape and - to the unbridled relief of all bar the Irish - he was passed fit for Saturday's Triple Crown match at Twickenham.

Barely a month ago Jack Rowell, the manager, was still expecting - or at any rate hoping - that England could get by without their long-serving No 8. Now, having personally created the conditions under which Scotland's Grand Slam aspirations were ended, even at 32 Richards remains the nearest thing to indispensable.

He played a full part in yesterday's private session at the Bank of England ground, including the scrummaging practice. The Irish are also relieved that the most-capped player in their team, the Lions prop Nick Popplewell, should have recovered sufficiently from a hamstring injury.

Whether England really do open up their rugby against Ireland will probably depend on whether Richards is personally inclined to instigate the change. That said, this is yet again Rowell's sincere intention as expressed when his team gathered in Richmond yesterday.

"Accepting it is a rebuilding year, we do not believe we've done justice at Twickenham to our talents," the manager said. "We'd like to think there will be more ball moving across the face of the threequarters and that is our strategic intent.

"We haven't got to imposing it at Twickenham this year and the sooner we get back to it the better. Only in the Scotland and France games did we play tactically and there's no inhibition in game plans for the backs to have the ball. Full stop.''

"Strategic" and "tactical" are euphemistic Rowellisms for the restricted rugby that gained England their Murrayfield victory, though Scots were less polite with their adjectives. There is currently a direct comparison with the Super-12 provincial series taking place in the southern hemisphere and the restrictions, if we are to believe the manager, are about to be lifted.

"We'd like to see the backs running more freely and with confidence. We pick an attacking full-back on purpose, specifically to play English- style open rugby. It's a must for the good of the game generally. When you watch the Super-12s, the pace and width of the game, we've got to get there in an English way as soon as possible.''

Saturday's match will tell whether wishful Rowell's thinking is wishful, but if nothing else a liberated England performance would be a suitable way to send off Will Carling as he retires from the captaincy. Last Sunday Carling notably refrained from anything that could be construed as praise of Rowell and yesterday's managerial remarks, though entirely laudatory, seemed as much valediction as tribute.

Carling will doubtless be glad of the relative comfort of the back pages after returning to the front pages this week but the slow handclaps of his home crowd remain a disagreeable memory of the Samoan and Welsh matches. "He will want to leave Twickenham with the right relationship with everyone there and that includes the crowd," Rowell said.

"His leadership this season in a team that's rebuilding has been a big challenge, but the way he put his leadership together in the run-up and the game in Scotland. . . I've never seen anything better than that in my rugby life.''

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