Rowell running out of time

Have England lost the plot? Did they ever have one? Chris Rea bemoans a lack of direction and invention
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S rugby players provided incontrovertible proof last Saturday that quality and effort are not directly linked to payment. In their first match as officially recognised professionals, this was, in its most derogatory sense, strictly amateur. In its purest form, amateurism is a noble concept which has nothing to do with lowering of standards but everything to do with enjoyment. Now, it seems, we are getting the worst of both worlds with a marked deterioration in the one and, on either side of the touchline, precious little of the other.

What is more, the tone of the management-speak hardly augurs well for the future. Jack Rowell is talking gibberish and has been for some time. He is sending conflicting messages to the players and has alienated the press and, inevitably, the rugby public. John Elliott, the Rugby Football Union's National Development Officer and one of the better appointments of late, has been pleading for time. But how much time do England need?

It is almost two years since Rowell and his cohorts took over from Geoff Cooke, since when England have not so much lost the plot as cast serious doubts as to whether they ever had one. Not only were they bereft of wit and invention against the Western Samoans, they appeared incapable of performing the most fundamental task. The basic instinct has become the instinctively base.

If it is the backs who have taken the brunt of the criticism, the forwards are no less culpable. Where the backs were indescribably careless the forwards lacked tactical direction and passion. To be driven back from a line-out cleanly won on the Samoans' goal-line and then shunted at a five-metre scrummage, as the England pack were, would have had their predecessors weeping in shame. Furthermore, no effort was made to confuse and disrupt the enemy with tactical variations at the line-out or the scrum where the ploys were infantile in conception and ponderous in execution.

There was no dynamism, no snap in their play due in part to strategical uncertainty and also because the back row is still unbalanced. Ben Clarke and Tim Rodber and, to a lesser extent, Lawrence Dallaglio, are upright runners, whose centre of gravity makes it harder to adopt the correct body positions going into the rucks and mauls. Getting on to the deck at speed is another problem. Until Rodber rediscovers the form which scorched the Springboks in the first Test two seasons ago, England must consider switching Clarke or Dallaglio to the blind side.

Yet the two most effective back-row players this season have been the Saracens pair, Tony Diprose and Richard Hill. Diprose is a natural No 8 whose athleticism and ball-handling skills complement a physically aggressive approach. The argument that the time hasn't yet come for either Diprose or Hill is palpable nonsense, given that the only players who passed muster at Twickenham last Saturday were the three least experienced members of the side with a total of half a cap between them. They at least brought a freshness and enthusiasm that was signally lacking elsewhere.

The scrummage deserves more time to settle in following the upheavals in the second row, although I don't recall any power reduction in the Lions' scrummage two years ago when Jason Leonard moved to the tight head for the second Test against the All Blacks in Wellington.

The backs present a different problem. Jack Rowell's pronouncements about an all- embracing game (not a figment of the media's imagination but an accurate report of the manager's own comments) presupposed that the players could adapt to it. This was never a foregone conclusion and last Saturday the public at large were better able to understand why. What they witnessed was no different to what is on offer every week at club and divisional level. The same sloppy handling and wayward passing, the same undisciplined running, the same quality of decision-making.

The 1971 Lions, by general consent, contained some of the finest backs ever to leave these shores. Yet for the duration of the New Zealand tour which lasted three and a half months, the backs did nothing in training other than perfect their passing technique. "If you can't pass at the right time and to the right place, then there's no point in attempting anything else," was the creed of Carwyn James, a coach 10 years ahead of his time and light years ahead of most of his contemporaries in rugby ideology. The point is that if it took some of the greatest practitioners the game has ever seen so long to perfect the basic skills, how much longer will it take the journeymen of today?

A matter of minutes is all it takes to distinguish between an All Blacks training session and one in Britain. There is a dramatic difference in approach and application. The rigid disciplines under which the New Zealanders work are self- imposed. A player doesn't have to be told that his last pass was a couple of inches off line. He knows it and he makes sure that he doesn't repeat the error.

Followers of the cult movie Spartacus will remember that macabre contraption used to train prospective gladiators. It was a revolving pole to which were attached at the top and bottom lethally sharp blades. Get the timing wrong and the wretched victim would lose either his foot or his head. Rugby coaches in Britain should consider something similar for training their backs because physical illiteracy of the sort we saw on Saturday would mean simultaneous amputation and decapitation. Even Paul Grayson, who had an encouraging debut, displayed a poor appreciation of the lines of running. Had he straightened the line immediately, Rory Underwood might have got his try on the outside rather than by the infinitely more perilous route through the opposition cover.

Lack of pace is certainly a problem for England. The time has come to consider those who can unsettle defences by speed and guile rather than brute force. Austin Healey combines the blistering acceleration of a genuine winger with the versatility of a footballer sufficiently competent to play first division rugby at scrum-half. But to select a winger in isolation is to fine-tune an engine in need of a major service.

The sad reality is that England's failure to expand their game is not attributable to the shortcomings of individuals, but to the system which has produced them. Substitute De Glanville for Carling, Hopley or Mensah for Guscott, Grayson for Andrew and the result will be the same. It was Jack Rowell's recognition of this fact which prompted his remark that England might have to return to their old ways, from which, incidentally, they have never fully strayed, for the forthcoming Five Nations' Championship. It is a bleak prospect.

The contrary quotes of Jack Rowell

Before the World Cup semi- final against New Zealand: "Our forwards are pretty formidable, and not just on paper. We haven't really launched them yet . . . We are working to set them free."

After semi-final defeat: "The style of play is at fault as well. When the pressure comes on, people naturally draw the net closer and play in a limited way."

Before the recent South Africa international: "If we can release the re-born Guscott and Carling into the midfield with ball and space to play in, you will see a lot of movement."

After defeat by South Africa: "We need to play more regularly to find out about the pace and the power . . . We rushed things and tried a bit too hard at times."

Before the Western Samoa international: "The stop-start game has been rapidly outmoded since the World Cup and either we get into it or we are going to be left behind. England owes the nation a big one. They owe themselves a big one."

After victory over Western Samoa: "The players were too wound up with trying to play the so-called champagne rugby . . . We tried to handle the ball in the wrong places, and I blame the media for that . . . I'd rather we got back to basics, and where we were in last year's Five Nations."