Rugby Union: Australian fads are bad for progress of England backs

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IN THE last few weeks I have received several letters from England rugby union supporters claiming I am less than generous to the national side. Some write in sorrow, some in anger, some in amused toleration. All are united in their conviction that I am not wholly fair to the team as it has developed under Clive Woodward.

I believe what Woodward says about wanting to develop a new kind of rugby, play a 15-man game, compete effectively with the southern hemisphere - though countries from that half of the globe, New Zealand in particular, have no hesitation in playing 10-, nine-, or even eight-man rugby when it suits their purposes so to do.

This, indeed, is the criticism of England's two wins so far this season: that, when the going gets rough, the English forwards stuff the ball up their jumpers and wait for their strength, and the passage of time, to convey them to the line. Or, as Dr Johnson observed of Gulliver's Travels: "When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest."

To be fair to Woodward, he is less obsessed with size than both his predecessors. Geoff Cooke refused to pick Neil Back regularly because he thought he was too small, though he added - which cannot have been of much consolation to Back - that this was not the poor lad's fault. Jack Rowell picked a back row of three No 8s, then Ben Clarke on the open side.

Woodward, by contrast, has selected the Leicester flanker consistently and preferred a back row of three No 7s, for Lawrence Dallaglio has often played in that position. He has also had the bright idea, so far abundantly justified, of playing Tim Rodber, formerly a No 6 or 8, in the second row.

There remains some doubt how good the England forwards really are. Two years ago, when their composition was only slightly different, it was confidently asserted that they would take most of the places in the Lions' pack. In the event the Test team fielded two Irishmen and a Scotsman in the front row and an Irishman as principal jumper. Scott Quinnell of Wales and maybe Eric Miller of Ireland, too, would have been in the back row had they not been impeded by injury.

Would the story be very different today? I shall reserve my selection of a Lions XV to a later column, after the Five Nations has finished.

In any case, a pack cannot be judged by the number that will be promoted to another, superior lot of forwards. They form a unit. That is why, if I were Woodward, I would take a chance on the entire Leicester pack, apart from retaining Rodber in the second row and playing Dallaglio at No 6. This would be harsh for Jason Leonard and Richard Hill, but I do not suppose for a moment that Woodward will make the experiment.

There is something else. In the second half of the Scotland match, about 20 metres out and in front of the Scottish posts, the England scrum were wheeled three or four times - unless, of course, they were doing the wheeling, in which case the move was equally profitless.

Yet it is unfair to blame England's forwards for the distinct lack of sparkle that has been apparent this season. Kyran Bracken is such a live wire that he is in danger of giving electric shocks to all those in his immediate vicinity, including his own side. I wish he would concentrate more on his primary duty - to give a long, accurate pass to his outside- half - instead of going off immediately on frolics of his own.

But to whom is Bracken going to make this service available? That is the perennial English question. Paul Grayson is out, injured, for the rest of the season. I assume Woodward will choose Mike Catt in his place and leave Jonny Wilkinson settled at inside centre. Outside him, in Jeremy Guscott, England have perhaps their greatest centre of the post-war period, rivalled only by Jeff Butterfield, Lewis Cannell and David Duckham. The aim should be to get the ball quickly to Guscott in the most propitious circumstances for him.

It will not be achieved if the outside-half lies flat, eyeball to eyeball with the opposition. Grayson was praised everywhere when he played in this way before Christmas. I cannot understand why. Neil Jenkins played similarly for Wales in the first two lost matches but reverted to an older style in Paris.

In even older times coaches would compel their outside-half and three- quarters to stand at an angle of 30 degrees to the touchline. This was absurd. But the modern fad for playing flat is equally if not more so. It is a fashion as foolish as the one for kicking to touch instead of going for goal, having a scrum or taking a tap penalty. Woodward acquired an obsession with lying flat after a sojourn in Australia. He should now get rid of it.