Rowell must change old guard

Chris Rea believes that England have missed their chance to move on
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS remarkable how quickly the memory of the World Cup has faded but, lest we forget completely, England, the champions of Europe, played quite abysmally in four of their six matches. Neither in style nor in attitude were they close to achieving their goal, yet of the first national squad to be announced since the World Cup only Graham Dawe and John Mallett, both support players in South Africa, have been omitted.

If ever proof were required of Jack Rowell's conservatism it is in the selection of this party. He had every excuse graciously to dispense with some of those players who have served their country very nobly but very possibly for too long. In South Africa there was evidence of the unhealthily strong influence exerted by some of the senior players in matters of selection.

The nettle, even one as prickly as Brian Moore, should have been grasped. It is never easy to bid farewell to old warriors who have served throughout one of the most successful periods in England's history, nevertheless the time has surely come to sever the cord, although whether the cut should be quite so savage as to include the replacement of Will Carling as captain would depend very much on the calibre of his possible successor. As when Carling was appointed at the age of 22, there may be an unheralded candidate in the background, but it is hard to think of one who can feel quite as secure about his place in the side as Carling did seven years ago.

England have been talking a much better game than they have been playing since Geoff Cooke's resignation. They have talked about the conversion of mobile props to hooker, they have spouted forth on the need for clean and quick delivery from the forwards, a fast pass from the base of the scrum and a more expansive game. Yet they have delivered none of these things. There are, of course, concessions to youth and to the future in the composition of the squad. Nick Greenstock, England's young player of the year last season, who is languishing in Wasps' second team, is one of six centres selected.

Strange, isn't it, that England have half a dozen centres apparently good enough for internationals but only two specialist wingers? But then English rugby, like its football cousin in the Sixties, has so grossly devalued wing play that it is surprising to find anyone wanting to play there at all.

England have an almost scandalously poor record in their treatment of young backs. Players such as Matt Dawson and Nick Beale, full of promise three or four seasons ago, have at best marked time and at worst regressed into anonymity. But then England have wasted more talent than any other rugby nation. Had they the limited resources of Scotland, New Zealand or Australia, they could not have afforded such profligacy.

Paul Hull has been treated shabbily and one fears for the future of Greenstock, whose many rough edges need to be carefully and sympathetically smoothed. It is all too easy, as Damian Hopley discovered, for a fledgling centre three-quarter to be regarded as a sacred cow one season and a sacrificial lamb the next.

Perhaps the most interesting newcomer is Rory Jenkins. His first taste of international rugby was for London when the divisional side were routed by Sean Fitzpatrick's All Blacks. In style and in attitude he is not dissimilar to Peter Winterbottom and, in common with the Yorkshireman in the early part of his career, Jenkins needs to work on the finer skills of the game. But there is no doubting his commitment. It is unfortunate that no place could be found for his club colleague at Harlequins Chris Sheasby, whose performances in the first four weeks of this season have contributed very largely to the club's success and have merited recognition by the national selectors.

At fly-half, David Pears, whose determination to persevere in the face of adversity is matched only by the man he seeks to supplant, Rob Andrew, must be taken on trust despite his advancing years and varied experience. But if his international record is not sufficiently long for detailed analysis, his mental strength and courage do not require re-examination. Whether or not he would be able to bring greater width and imagination to England's play at fly-half depends less on his own game than on the attitude and skills of those around him.

Nevertheless I regret that Rowell has not taken this opportunity to bring a dignified end to Andrew's glorious international career. As from this week, his priorities and thoughts will lie elsewhere, his opportunities for practice restricted by his new job at Newcastle. Despite the disappointment of England's World Cup, its most vivid memory is of the drop goal with which Andrew slayed the Wallabies. That is how his supporters will want to remember him.

While Rowell is sticking to the old standards, rugby's new world of professionalism has also brought many flights of fantasy. None is more potentially damaging than the suggestion that the senior clubs in England should secede from the Rugby Football Union. Nothing could be calculated to bring the game more swiftly to its knees than a solo trip into the marketplace with a product as poor as club rugby.

Europe is seen as the salvation for clubs attempting to generate the funds for their players, coaches and chief executives, but the RFU are rightly holding back until they know more about the structure of the tournament and the plans to televise it. Indeed, there is an influential body of opinion within the RFU which believes that if and when England do enter Europe, it will be with divisions, not clubs. As the tournament is designed specifically to help raise the standards in the northern hemisphere and bridge the gap between club and international rugby, that would seem to make good sense. Whatever Rowell's decision, now is the time to come clean and announce it.