Rugby: England seeking new identity

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS never an afternoon like it. All four home countries played in London on Saturday, making it a unique occasion, unlikely to be repeated. The sun shone on the 151,000 who packed the grandstands at Twickenham and Wembley, creating conditions ideal for entertaining rugby, and artistry was applauded on both fields. Yet there was a puzzling aspect to the day.

One of those four nations, of course, was playing on its own turf. But, the way things turned out, who knew which? Even when the final whistle blew on an England victory at the RFU's majestic headquarters, there was little in the tentative acclaim by a full house to suggest that this had been a home win, achieved by dint of struggle.

While at Wembley, where the temporarily homeless Welsh were nominally the hosts, the ground's proximity to Kilburn High Road ensured that this was virtually a home fixture for the Irish, who celebrated their win long and loud.

As for the English, perhaps you could hardly blame them for the muted greeting they gave Lawrence Dallaglio - those few of them who were left, that is - as he climbed to the Royal Box to accept the Calcutta Cup for the 10th year in a row.

Supporters who have grown used to the legend of the Carling era, to visions of white shirts slicing effortlessly through the opposition, are unprepared for the gritty, flawed reality of a match such as this.

Afterwards, the England captain and his coach, Clive Woodward, opted for a realistic attitude and got their apologies in first. "We didn't quite perform the way we wanted to," Dallaglio volunteered. "We took the game to them and got a couple of tries, but then we went into cruise mode and gave away three very soft tries."

Woodward spoke straight away of the "fundamental basic errors" that had let Scotland back into the match after England had established a 14-0 lead inside the opening 20 minutes. "We won the game, which was vital," he said, "but I can assure you that the England dressing-room was a pretty sombre place afterwards. Scotland played a very fast game, and they did well. But I wasn't expecting to give them the ball as often as we did. If you give any side the ball that often, you're going to struggle. They scored one good try, but the other two were down to our sloppiness."

He had told the team that there was no need for panic, and both he and Dallaglio emphasised that the patchy nature of the performance was a result of England being in transition from one type of game to another. "The game we're trying to play," the captain said, "is aimed at bringing us long-term success against the best sides in the world. It's a high-risk game. But you've got to stick with your principles. If you want to succeed on a global stage, you've got to play in a certain way. If you don't do that, you can be kings of the Northern Hemisphere and that's all."

Dallaglio was unwilling to provide a precise definition of the style to which England aspire, expressing the need for "a technical efficiency that wasn't there today". Presumably what he and Woodward are after is the kind of continuity rugby that moves smoothly from one planned breakdown to another, in exactly the way they managed after six minutes, when Matt Dawson launched successive short-range drives by Darren Garforth, Martin Johnson and Tim Rodber that destroyed the Scottish cover and ended with Rodber's try. A quarter of an hour later, there was a similar cool execution to the midfield handling move that set up Neil Back to draw Cameron Murray and free Dan Luger for a run to the line. Jonny Wilkinson's brisk left- footed conversions emphasised the air of competence and authority.

At that moment, it looked like turning into the sort of embarrassment the All Blacks inflicted on England in Cape Town four years ago. So, in terms of value for money on the day, thank goodness they started making the mistakes that encouraged Scotland to pick themselves up off the floor. But, although Kenny Logan's failure to land any of three penalty attempts from kickable positions might appear, on paper, to have cost his side a match decided by a margin of three points, his coach knew better. Without trying to put an implausible gloss on Logan's errors, Jim Telfer quietly observed that it was not as simple as that. When you score a penalty, he pointed out, you have to go back to the middle for the other side to restart, affecting the shape of a game in which possession and territorial advantage are so vital.

The England management's post-match emphasis on the need to develop a certain style of play in order to compete with the Southern Hemisphere giants for the World Cup in the autumn was both welcome and worrying. Welcome because it shows an understanding of the higher imperatives, worrying because it so clearly echoes the words heard time and again during Jack Rowell's tenure, when the endlessly repeated promise of "expansive rugby" became first a mirage and eventually a bit of a joke, the only constant in that erratic time. And worrying, too, because their attritional scrummaging in the second half was so unproductive and inefficient, despite the massive power advantage.

Any available optimism was vested mainly in the performance of the 19- year-old Wilkinson, who kicked four out of four with unfussy assurance and repelled Scotland's closing assaults with a couple of midfield tackles of emphatic courage and conclusiveness. After his ordeal at the hands of Australia on tour last summer, this represented a significant rehabilitation. It will surely not be long before he is ready to take his proper place at outside-half, where Mike Catt's typically contradictory display on Saturday - exquisite line kicking, meaningless looping breaks, one staggering and costly error at the moment of maximum pressure, when he flapped the ball into Gregor Townsend's hands, allowing his opposite number to gallop away for Scotland's third try - told us nothing we did not already know.

Woodward blended enthusiasm for the Newcastle prodigy with a cautious view of his future role. "Wilkinson had a tremendous game defensively," he said, "and he never looked like missing his kicks. There were a couple of slips, but those two tackles were special. He's an outstanding talent, he's very mature, he fits well into the environment, and he did himself proud today. He's still got things to learn, but this was a big chance and he took it. I think his best position will be No 10, eventually, but he's not playing there for his club at the moment, which makes it difficult."

Among the problems that stand between the coach and the sort of rugby he wants England to play, here is one, at least, for which a solution appears to exist. Starting with the rampant Irish a week on Saturday, Woodward has exactly three games in which to demonstrate genuine progress towards an autumn climax. And, in the process, to convince Twickenham to abandon its present unfamiliar mood of restraint.

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