Rowell on the stand in style trial

Five Nations' Championship: England search for a new way forward as their rivals struggle to conquer shortcomings; Chris Rea says questions must be answered in the northern showpiece
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It is slightly disconcerting to be previewing an international season when, already this season, there has been a full programme of internationals. Not that the advance information from these matches has made the job any easier. We know that France are in chaotic disarray, that Scotland and Ireland are seemingly beyond help and without hope, that Wales looked rather good in defeat and that England look rather poor in victory. Shaken down, this probably means that Scotland and Ireland will share the Championship, that England and France, terminally exhausted by their brutal combat against each other at Twickenham, will finish in mid-table and that Wales will be whitewashed.

At least England have the luxury of an extra fortnight in which to find the answers to their problems although it is fair to say that, given their enviable resources and the difficulties they appear to have in making the best use of them, they have many more questions to answer. The most recent additions to their squad suggest a selectorial change of heart, but the crux of the matter, surely, is whether or not they signal a change of style.

It would be futile, for example, to pick Neil Back for the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham and ask him to operate in the limbo of the strategy England adopted in their pre-Christmas games. Mind you, it would not be the first time that England had stuffed a jewel under the mattress and when they originally selected Back as an open-air rambler, the first thing they did was to send him underground, imprisoning him in the middle of the mauls and at the bottom of the rucks.

There is no doubt that Bob Dwyer has engineered a minor miracle in his short time at Leicester, and that one of the principal beneficiaries is Back. Somehow he has convinced the gnarled grandees in the Tigers' pack to abandon their closed-shop policy in favour of the democracy of the 15-man game. With a terrifying show of collective strength last week they scattered the reigning European champions to the four corners of Welford Road. If Dwyer can achieve that transformation at Leicester Jack Rowell can surely do the same with England. If he can't, then perhaps Dwyer is the man the Poms should turn to. Rowell's position, though insecure, is safe at least until the end of the Five Nations, but he will not survive if England falter. His main obstacles to another Championship are his own conservatism and a reduced number of options because of decisions he has already taken. The appointment of Phil de Glanville as captain means that one of the two best centres in England will have to sit the series out. Against Scotland, it seems that Will Carling will be the unlucky one.

There is no evidence that Rowell has got the best blend in that Bermuda Triangle betwixt wings and full back and I doubt that Mike Catt will stay at fly-half. In that case, goal-kicking considerations would favour Paul Grayson ahead of Alex King which, purely on potential and technical excellence, would not be in England's long-term interests.

On the assumption that Lawrence Dallaglio will be picked in his best position on the blindside, Rowell will have to find a new openside, a position which has not been satisfactorily occupied since Peter Winterbottom's retirement. Rowell could have three choices - Back, Richard Hill or Chris Sheasby, whose success at No 8 earlier in the season has made it all the harder for Rowell to follow his instincts and go for bulk in the shape of Tim Rodber or Ben Clarke. Were this a New Zealand selection, then a combination of Dallaglio and Hill or Back on the flanks with Sheasby at No 8, would be a distinct possibility. But despite the crushing weight of evidence that agility at the back of the line-out is more important than height, it would be a giant leap of faith were England to go in without one of their sky-scrapers.

There is a view, although it is not one to which I subscribe, that the new scrummage laws have weakened the argument for flat alignment in midfield. Dwyer has exploded that theory at Leicester where Rob Liley has worked even closer to the coal face, making it that much easier for Back and the others in support to get in behind the ball-carrier and sustain the forward momentum. The Springboks gave what was as close to a perfect demonstration of that art against Wales, and, in that rip-roaring match last season, admittedly before the new laws came into play, it was what gave Scotland the crucial advantage over France.

At the heart of that triumph was Gregor Townsend, a gem not so much hidden as being worn on the wrong finger. Australia could hardly believe their good fortune in November when they discovered that Townsend, Britain's Player of the Year at fly-half, was safely tucked away on the outer fringes. For all of Craig Chalmers' qualities he lacks Townsend's mesmeric skills and his knack of making things happen in parts of the field where the opposition defences are more vulnerable to attack. Scotland's problems, though, begin further forward. Their line-out was obliterated against the Wallabies and despite the return to the squad of Shade Munro and Rob Wainwright the Scottish forwards are not the menacing force of those halcyon days not so long ago.

Wales, their opponents at Murrayfield next Saturday, are similarly troubled. Their pack showed commendable resolve against the Springboks but the fortitude of their back row still couldn't compensate for the lack of physical presence. In Robert Howley they have the next best thing to Joost van der Westhuizen, and there can be no more glowing tribute to an individual's talent than that. But like Scotland, Wales have problems in sustaining the necessary levels of power, pace and touch.

France have all three in abundance but have almost unsurmountable problems in getting them to work simultaneously. For those who marvelled at Brive's ruthless dismantling of the Cardiff forwards in last week's European Cup semi-final it is astonishing to find not one member of the Brive pack in the national squad.

Pierre Villepreux's arrival as Jean-Claude Skrela's assistant is to be welcomed. But not even this maestro can quickly untangle the web of political intrigue and chicanery which habitually surrounds the selection and preparation of French sides. The lack of stability and consistency is still the biggest threat to France and despite the presence of some of the world's most brilliant practitioners, such as Jean-Luc Sadourny, Emile Ntamack, Thomas Castaignede and the matchless Abdel Benazzi, there is no guarantee that they will be any more successful this season than last when they finished third.

Villepreux's problems in pulling the French together in time to win the Championship this season is a doddle compared to the Herculean task confronting Brian Ashton, Ireland's new coaching adviser. He comes into an organisation which has not begun to come to terms with professionalism and the consequence of the mass migration of the country's leading players to England. This has destroyed that unquantifiable strength of unity and purpose which Irish sides, good, bad or indifferent, take on to the field with them.

There is talk also of over-harsh training regimes and a selection policy which is at best inconsistent. The scrum-half position is a case in point and few members of the side can be confident of their places. Keith Wood is presumably an exception. A player of the old school of fire and fury, he may be able to imbue the side with just enough spirit to gain respectability but that is the best Ireland can hope for.