Rugby: The Leagues have brought out all the rugby talent in England

ALAN WATKINS ON RUGBY
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the characteristics of recent rugby commentary - I have displayed it, I suppose, as much as anyone - is that it is has concentrated on the decline of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, especially Wales, but has devoted hardly any attention to the rise of England. And yet it is the latter which is the more arresting phenomenon.

France were always there or thereabouts, contesting the champions of the Northern Hemisphere with Wales and, in recent years at any rate, generally winning. They have maintained and even enhanced their position. It is England who have destroyed the old balance.

It is, when you come to think about it, an extraordinary achievement. The chief credit, at international level anyway, should go to Geoff Cooke. He did not produce attractive rugby and not particularly want to but he did produce winning rugby.

His successor, Jack Rowell, wanted his side to be attractive to watch - at least, this is what he said - but he did not usually succeed. Yet he too kept on winning. The English record in the 1990s has been remarkable: Grand Slams in 1991, 1992 and 1995 and the Championship (including the Triple Crown) in 1996.

It has not always, or usually, been a pretty sight. I always associate in my mind the rise of English rugby with the reign of Margaret Thatcher. A crudely expressed English nationalism came bubbling menacingly to the surface.

However, to be fair to the usually chauvinist and largely ignorant crowd who go to the new Twickenham, they were remarkably restrained, showing no disposition to gloat, after the demolition of Wales 10 days ago. Perhaps they were as shocked, though in a different way, as my fellow countrymen were.

But Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, ruled in the 1980s. In that decade England won the Championship only once, at the very beginning, in 1980, the year of Bill Beaumont's Grand Slam. Shortly after the beginning of the 1990-91 season she was gone, phut, in a shower of sparks and a puff of smoke. England success was achieved under a greyer regime; which only goes to show the tricks that memory can play.

The simple explanation is that the Leagues have brought out all the rugby talent in England, even though, with professionalism, the leading clubs rely increasingly on non-English players. In this process several myths have been laid to rest: such as that there were vast reserves of rugby talent in Cornwall and in the extreme north, untapped because of the blindness and the metropolitan snobbery of the national selectors.

England's predominance in the British Isles has come about through the high standards attained by clubs such as Bath and Leicester, now joined by Newcastle and Saracens. In Wales, only Cardiff can rival them.

Why Fran Cotton wants to revive and even strengthen the old divisional championship continues to elude me. It was a great bore which the papers, and up to a point, television covered because they thought it was expected of them, not because any one was particularly interested. The participants were not greatly enthused either. It was notorious that players from Bath, Bristol and Gloucester disliked turning out for the South Western Division, which was as a consequence something less than the some of its parts.

These clubs have certainly provided Clive Woodward, the England coach, with a luxury of choice, despite the presence of numerous foreigners. No one could object if he gave a first cap to the young Richmond wing Dominic Chapman, in place of Austin Healey, even though Healey scored a try against Wales.

Even a rugby-following Solomon would find it difficult to choose between Kyran Bracken and Matt Dawson at scrum half. There are two Lions standard No 8s, Tony Diprose and Tim Rodber, who cannot get into the side. Only the front row remain problematical, although Richard Cockerill seems to have established himself in the middle.

Kevin Bowring, at the time of writing still the Welsh coach - as I hope he remains - must wish he had such a large tank into which to dip his net. The sad truth is that, except for a few small adjustments (for example, Colin Charvis moving to No 7 instead of playing at No 6), the side he took to Twickenham won the approval of most Welsh fans.

Neil Jenkins has now said, as he is fully entitled to, that he does not wish to continue at full-back. I hope Jenkins is restored to outside-half with the function of releasing Allan Bateman and Scott Gibbs - and continuing to kick those goals which, even in these high-scoring days, can still turn a match.

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