Rowell asks some searching questions

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
English rugby was yesterday confronted with what may be an inconvenient truth when Jack Rowell, the England team manager, posed this question: are the Rugby Football Union, leading clubs and impatient supporters prepared to subordinate everything in favour of winning the 1999 World Cup?

The question was posed when Rowell addressed a post-'95 World Cup conference three months ago but his remarks have now been reported in the RFU's technical journal "England Rugby" and go to the heart of how his team might beat the rest of the world consistently as opposed to in occasional one-offs.

So when the England squad met for an injury-ravaged session at Marlow last night, to Rowell's way of thinking they were getting ready for four years hence just as much as for next month, when they play South Africa at Twickenham.

"Success on the world stage can be seriously contemplated only if the RFU gears everything to this end," he said. "This means that the structure of the domestic game must take the commitment of the international team into account as a priority.

"In the World Cup skill levels which are sufficient for the Five Nations were inadequate. Of all the teams, [only] New Zealand could play at pace. If England are to play with the same speed of reaction and desire to attack from any situation, the game nationally has to be the nursery for this style."

Rowell has lately been criticised - not least by Dick Best, whom he sacked as coach - for the failure of his England teams to match up to his own rhetoric of attacking, risk-taking rugby and, if nothing else, these opinions should ensure that the burden of responsibility is shared.

But the club-v-country tensions evident as the game moves towards outright professionalism make Rowell's views as well-timed as a Paul Turner pass. He not only wants the national team to have the priority, but also needs English clubs as well as England to sacrifice themselves by adopting the self-same attacking, risk-taking style.

"With regard to a change in style, could it be agreed that for some, hopefully brief, interim period it wouldn't matter if England lost in the Five Nations or against touring teams while we undertake the change?" Rowell asked. "Could the RFU, supporters and players accept that it's one thing to rehearse a new style but yet another to produce it successfully in the heat of an international?"

In other words, Rowell wishes to follow the path trodden over the past four years by Laurie Mains, the New Zealand coach, who was willing - though hardly happy - to take the flak when the All Blacks suffered some unlikely setbacks while he was constructing a team and a style to win the 1995 World Cup.

An extra-time drop goal was all that prevented this happening and, not only did New Zealand play by far the best rugby, it happened because they had spent years gradually putting the theory of ambitious rugby into practice. The lesson is not lost on Rowell, but then nor is the intensity of public expectation which did not diminish with England's semi-final defeat by the All Blacks.

But to succeed, Rowell admits he needs help. His questioning continued: "Would club officials and spectators be happy if for some relatively long or short term their side lost some of their games - seemingly unnecessarily - in pursuit of the more open, probably error-strewn, adventurous style of play? The World Cup lessons are available to all of us; is the will also available?" Right now, he does not have the answer.