Rugby Union: A game in the grip ofthe grand obsession: Five Nations decider: England's belief that virtue comes from victory may see a successful end to Cooke's reign and slam the door on a Welsh dream

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE MAN and his clog - the story of England's season so far. All week the battle has raged between the romantics and the realists. Is it the winning or the taking part, is it the victory or the manner ofit? Winning is the prime object of any sporting contest, the manner of the victory incidental. The realists have been on firmer ground. Even in professional sports which depend upon paying spectators for their very survival, the duty to entertain is secondary to the need to win. It is victory not virtuosity that reaps the most tangible rewards.

If England had taken leave of their senses in Paris last week by adopting tactics at odds with their selection and pre-match planning, and contrary to their nature, they would have been guilty of the same folly and incompetence as the French and would have been subjected to the same vilification which has flowed in the wake of France's failure.

Few defeats are recalled with pride by those who suffer them. England's management can therefore make a persuasive case for organisation, physical strength and inflexibility. They may run counter to rugby's origins and may ultimately prove to be against the game's best interests, but they are match-winning qualities.

The same argument was advanced after the British Lions had beaten New Zealand and South Africa in the Test series of 1971 and 1974, but while Britain was preoccupied with the obsession of forward might, the rest of the rugby world was moving on. And so it was with Alf Ramsey's England after their World Cup success in 1966 when long-term benefit was sacrificed for short-term gain. Enlightened skills such as we saw at Wembley last week are not only more entertaining to watch, they too can win matches.

The criticism of the present England side, and of English rugby as a whole, lies not in the pragmatism of their admirable victories over New Zealand and France which, by playing to the team's strengths and by preying on the weaknesses of the opposition, made the soundest of tactical sense and were the very essence of sporting conflict. The criticism is of the team's apparent reluctance to recognise that just as muscular athleticism, valiant defence and collective spirit can be match-winners, so there should be times when they are prepared to rely on the spontaneous unpredictability, and perhaps volatility, of the individual. Shorn of Jeremy Guscott, England and, to a degree, the championship itself, have been deprived of the genius without which no team, no sport - and certainly not one claiming international appeal - can feel comfortable.

But, even in Guscott's absence, it is fair to question performances so inhibiting natural expression that, apart from Tony Underwood's dash against the All Blacks last November, no English back has come within two yards of the opposition line. Their running on and off the ball has lacked conviction, imagination and, above all, confidence. And on the rare occasions when the call has come, the Underwoods have been out to lunch, the lights switched off, the shutters drawn. But who can blame them? Being a wing in England these days is a bit like shepherding: a cold and solitary business, but one someone has to do.

The blame lies not with the national side, but at club and school levels where the fundamental concept of carrying the ball is in sad decline. This may, in part, be because of the laws, and defensive improvements, but mostly it comes down to attitude, and if the greatest weight of criticism falls on England, it is because the richness of their natural resources places on them the greatest burden of expectation. It is a mighty onus to carry, and of the home countries only Wales in their pomp have known such pressure. But at Twickenham on Saturday the Welsh players will be reunited with it. To be strictly accurate, they will be introduced to it, because for every man jack,

including the captain, Ieuan Evans, it will be a new and possibly bewildering experience.

From the rags of last season to the glittering riches of a Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Championship? Too much of the heavenly bread, perhaps, for a nation so starved of success. How quickly has the mood swung from bleak pessimism to wild optimism. The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between.

Since last autumn's defeat by Canada at the Arms Park, the Welsh pack have played with a verve and venom which has surprised both friend and foe. They have not hesitated to use Scott Quinnell's extraordinary reflexes and instincts in all areas, but especially at the scrummage, where he has gathered up lightning heels with the aplomb of a slip fielder. He is a remarkable young man, but one who still has a lot to learn, and on Saturday he can expect a rigorous examination from opponents who have been forewarned of his prodigious talent.

Nevertheless, the Welsh have built up a momentum which will be hard to stop. Their running has been sharp, their handling assured, and there has been an obvious chemistry between backs and forwards, who are supplying the ball faster than any pack in the championship. Alan Davies, the Welsh coach, has been first with his retaliation, bullishly insisting that his players have been performing drills in training sessions which would be beyond the scope of the opposition. His dismissive criticism of England as predictable and inflexible is also deliberately provocative, but England, surely, will not rise to the bait. The last thing that Wales want is an attritional battle up front. Their forwards, much as they have improved this season, are not yet ready for that.

It is true that England's scrummage has inconvenienced no one, and even against the reserve French props was occasionally in extreme trouble. But it came through intact and will be much better for the experience. The Welsh, though, will be more concerned about the line-out, where England appear to have an almost limitless number of permutations now that Steve Ojomoh's agility at the tail gives them five main targets at which to aim.

It was not so much the possession from the line-out that was important to England at Parc des Princes as the quality of it. By the time the ball reached Dewi Morris, the sweepers and cleaners had been in to do their work. This gave Rob Andrew the time and the space to place his kicks with murderous accuracy, something the Welsh wings, and in particular Nigel Walker, will have been watching with a certain amount of foreboding.

But if Andrew fired the bullets in Paris, it was Morris who provided them. He was in the most commanding form, assured and decisive. I doubt if he made a wrong choice all afternoon. He has been more readily accepted in England as a Welshman than the Englishman Rupert Moon has been in Wales although, in the course of the championship, some of Moon's fiercest detractors have been forced into grudging admiration of his commitment and enthusiasm. The duel between Morris and Moon will be one of many to be fought out publicly. In private there is the rivalry between Davies, once of England, and Geoff Cooke, the man whose job he might have succeeded to had he not chosen to guide Wales.

There are many reasons for believing that England will succeed in all their aims on Saturday, and Cooke's farewell is one of them. The players will wish for nothing better than a stylish exit for the man whose departure so far ahead of the completion of his work still baffles many in the game. The 16- point margin of victory needed to secure the championship is another target for England.

These are considerations, but secondary to the main purpose of winning. As sportsmen that is their sole obligation, and whether they achieve it through Andrew's boot or Carling's hands matters not. It is for the guardians of the game to worry about the legacy they will be leaving for future generations.

Comments