Rowell trapped by outside world

Chris Rea measures England's progress beyond the mere statistics
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The Independent Online
If simple statistics, unadorned by fine detail, are the criteria for success, Jack Rowell's job as England coach should be secure until after the World Cup. In his three years in charge, England have beaten every big rugby power except New Zealand and have won a Grand Slam, a championship and a Triple Crown. On the face of it they have moved seamlessly from Geoff Cooke's period of restoration whilst coping admirably with the natural wastage that inevitably afflicts a sport as physically demanding as rugby football.

Rowell, despite a tendency towards flippancy and a feigned intellectual superiority which is often - erroneously - interpreted as barely concealed contempt for those who have to deal with him, is a good man. He is also a thoroughly agreeable if occasionally dangerous dinner companion. He is an enigma, which is precisely the image he works hard to cultivate. Working with him is a precarious balancing act in which the one constant is uncertainty. It can be a hostile environment without a comfort zone. For some the charge this generates can bring spectacular results; for others it can be corrosive and destructive.

Throughout his career both as a captain of industry and as a rugby coach with club and country, the results appear to support Rowell's theories of management. He has had infinitely more success than failure, albeit with sides which in terms of resources and individual skill have been markedly superior to their rivals. But it was Rowell who helped to build up the resources and nurture the talent in the first place.

During his years at Bath, he enjoyed the support of a back-up team that was second to none, particularly in the early years when David Robson and Tom Hudson were influential forces at the Rec. Bath were in the vanguard of change and innovation, and as part of that team Rowell took his share of the credit. Nothing can change the statistical facts of the club's phenomenal success during that period and beyond after the departure of Robson and Hudson.

Yet there was still the suspicion that Bath's achievements could have been even more impressive had they set out more determinedly and more positively in search of perfection. There were occasions when they came close but too often settled for second-best, leaving sumptuous new horizons unexplored.

That Bath's glory has been good for English rugby is not in doubt, and although there was a time some years ago when too many of their players were elevated above their abilities to national status, the club has also done the country proud. Which brings us to Rowell's England. At times they have played exceptionally well and with considerable panache. Their victories over South Africa and Australia are lasting tributes to his tutelage, but seldom, if at all, have they exhibited the sustained fluency that illuminated England's play in 1990 and again two years later when they won a second successive Grand Slam.

On top of that there have been times when they have apparently taken the field without a recognisable strategy or, if they had one which misfired, without an effective alternative. Rowell would argue that players at this level should be able to make their own decisions and that if they cannot choose the correct option they have no place in international rugby. But in most quarters that is seen as the ultimate exercise in hand-washing. The two charges most frequently levelled against Rowell are that he is ultra-conservative and that he is cussedly obstinate. Critics offer up the selection of Phil de Glanville as captain as the most damning evidence in support of those perceived weaknesses.

Few would argue with the fact that, on playing form alone, de Glanville is not good enough to be in the side. Not only are Jeremy Guscott and Will Greenwood palpably better centres, but Mike Catt, who despite Rowell's insistence to the contrary is not and never will be an international fly- half but is a cracking centre, is another of superior quality. De Glanville's captaincy and leadership were much praised in Argentina. He is an articulate and intelligent man who is also a highly competent player. But he is critically short of pace and at the highest level that means he is short of the minimum standard required.

Furthermore, the selection of de Glanville was far from being the only flawed decision Rowell made last season. The pre-Christmas internationals allowed him the opportunity to find the right blend for the Five Nations' Championship, yet by midway through the tournament he had altered every one of the key middle-five positions. In view of the Lions selections it could be argued that in those warm-up games he got every position wrong between blind- side flanker and right wing.

His handling of Alex King, the Wasps fly-half, and the recall of Rob Andrew to the squad for the Welsh match were serious miscalculations that escaped full censure because of England's dismantling of the other home countries. Yet their march towards the Triple Crown says more about the state of the game in Scotland, Ireland and Wales than it does about England's quality. The fact was that England succeeded in breaking all manner of records without having to play consistently well, but against high-calibre opponents such as the New Zealand Barbarians, France and Australia, they were found wanting.

Rowell's term as national coach has raised more questions than it has answered but the only question to be asked now is whether or not England have made sufficient progress under his guidance to win the World Cup in 1999. If the answer to that is no, which almost certainly it is, then he should be replaced with all possible haste, although, one hopes, with a little more tact and sensitivity than has been displayed by England's administrators in the past couple of weeks.