Rugby Union: At last, a fighting chance for the famous Five

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WHAT is it about the English? Make them favourites and they invariably freeze, put them in a "must win" situation and they battle like hell. Last Saturday's excellent win over South Africa didn't come a moment too soon; either for Clive Woodward personally or for northern hemisphere rugby in general. There is no doubt that a month together in training camp has, not surprisingly, brought about significant improvements in England's game.

The defence now looks admirably solid, the restarts have come on dramatically and apart from one or two lapses of concentration the scrummage held up well against both southern hemisphere sides.

Key players have emerged - in particular Dan Luger, who combines pace and size with an admirably aggressive and positive attitude. Even more importantly, a number of key players have re-emerged - Jason Leonard looks nearly back to his best, Tim Rodber has learnt to stand and off-load in the tackle and brings a lot to the front-five defence whilst Lawrence Dallaglio is twice the player he was last season.

Tactically, the most novel feature was the regular use of rugby league style punts to the "end zone" - one of which resulted in the try by Jeremy Guscott. Such ploys account for a remarkable percentage of the tries scored in the Australian and English Super Leagues; but to be successful you need brave, committed and reasonably tall wingers who are composed in the air. Hence it was no coincidence that all the kicks were directed to Luger and not towards Rees, Underwood or Healey on the other flank.

In more general terms the last two Tests also suggested that England have finally realised that in modern Test rugby what you do when you don't have the ball is probably more important than what you do with it. All international teams are having trouble breaking down well-organised defences who spread across the field and press up well. It's fair to say that England haven't been that creative - but then you could say exactly the same of their opponents, Australia in particular - and they are meant to be the benchmark against which we are supposedly always falling short. Indeed over the next 12 months it is important that England are not conned by their southern hemisphere counterparts into playing running rugby just for the sake of it. The astute Nick Mallett was extremely wise in refusing to commit South Africa to a particular style when he took over following a poor run of form. New Zealand do not play the same Super 12 type rugby as Auckland nor do Australia throw it around like ACT.

What England must continue to do is to exert significant pressure. Any team, be they the All Blacks or Aldershot, will make mistakes if you put them under enough pressure. It may not always look pretty but it is always pretty effective.

And boy did South Africa make mistakes. Their handling was poor and without a dominant platform up front the inherent weaknesses of both half-backs - neither Joost van der Westhuizen nor Henry Honiball is a top-class tactical kicker - were exposed. They weren't helped by an awful decision by Gary Teichmann in choosing to go for seven points instead of an easy three just after Matt Dawson had missed a straight- forward penalty early in the second half. I do not subscribe to the common belief that this team were dead on their feet. No team going for a world record and playing in front of 75,000 people at Twickenham are going to be lacking in motivation or desire.

Having said all this, England are some way from being the finished article. Full-back is looking an increasingly difficult area - Nick Beal had an amazingly inconsistent day which included six or seven major errors which fortunately enough went largely unpunished, while the week before Matt Perry looked well short of international class. I'm sure the first choice wings are now Rees and Luger, both of whom should be given an extended run, but half-back is still a worry. Matt Dawson showed once again his excellent temperament with his goal-kicking, but his general play was patchy and Mike Catt is simply not consistent enough to be a regular international No 10.

Most encouragingly of all, the Five Nations' championship now promises to have some real bite for the first time in many years. A rejuvenated Wales, who need only to find a front row to be truly competitive, a highly motivated Ireland, who have the makings of a top-class pack; the emergence of a decent front five in Scotland for the first time in a decade; and France determined to build upon their domination of last year. Add in the traditional maniacal desire to defeat the English, a good four months to prepare between June and September once this season is completed, and there just begin to be a few signs that the 1999 World Cup might not be the complete southern hemisphere monopoly we all feared.

Mark Evans is director of rugby at Saracens