Rugby Union: Baffled by England's superiority complex

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The Independent Online
EVEN TWENTY years ago, newspapers published in London were not so obsessed with the fortunes of the England rugby team as they are today. Anyone would think the entire honour of the northern hemisphere rested on the shoulders of Lawrence Dallaglio and his chums.

Saturday's unsatisfactory win over Scotland has been discussed virtually wholly in terms of England's prospects in the World Cup. Indeed, one commentator went so far as to say that, before the Scottish match, England had been the "primary contender" for the trophy from the northern hemisphere.

What about France? I never completely trust computer-based rankings because they depend on the criteria that are adopted. Line-out counts, for example, are always questionable because they depend on whether a clear catch is counted as a line-out won, even though the ball is subsequently lost to the opposing side for one reason or another. Man is mightier than the machine.

None the less, France appear above England in all the rankings I have seen recently. The most recent has them third, below South Africa and New Zealand, respectively first and second, but above Australia and England at fourth and fifth.

My own ranking, based on results only, has France fourth, behind South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, in that order, but above England. Mind you, I still think New Zealand will win the cup. But there cannot be much argument that the chief threat to the southern hemisphere comes from France. This was so even before last Saturday, and despite their bedraggled and lucky win over Ireland in the Dublin rain two Saturdays before that.

Clive Woodward, the coach, and his players have taken a lot of stick because of the unjustified and vainglorious assumption that England have some God-given right to appear at least in the semi-finals of this autumn's competition. There is no such right. It is unfair to judge coach and players on that assumption.

True, England were slow to take decisions, or to change decisions that had already been taken. But not even in the mythical days of Geoff Cooke and Will Carling had England been any different in this respect - or in other respects as well, come to that.

As someone who, more times than he cares to remember, has seen the England pack grind up the middle of the Twickenham pitch to trap the opposition into a penalty 22 metres in front of the posts, Saturday's performance was a feast of what used to be called the handling code, with three tries from each side, only one of which (Tim Rodber's) came from trench warfare.

Nick Beal scored a spectacular try, though I still cannot understand how the Scots allowed him more or less a clear run. Dan Luger showed a lot of class. Richard Hill had his best game for England for roughly a quarter of the match. Above all, Jonny Wilkinson did everything that could have been expected of him and a bit more.

Though I understand perfectly the argument that you cannot simply tot up points from missed penalties or conversions and alter the score accordingly, it is obvious that if he (or Gavin Hastings, or even the current member of the original squad Craig Chalmers) had been playing for Scotland instead of Kenny Logan, they would have won.

It is odd that Woodward refuses to give Wilkinson an immediate run at outside-half, with Matt Dawson or Kyran Bracken inside him. To play him at inside centre, a position to which he is not really suited, simply delays a change that will have to be made sometime - unless Woodward, in the biggest U-turn since Tony Blair surrendered on all fronts to the countryside lobby, picks Joel Stransky instead.

I do not underestimate Scotland's spirited performance, John Leslie's generalship or Alan Tait's remarkable strength and speed in a lad of his advanced years. But, unusually, I was sitting in the upper stand rather than in the press box. From there I could see clearly that in the last quarter the Scots' forwards were unable to follow up kicks. They were ragged and slow. No doubt they were tired out. And who shall blame them?

Both Scotland and Ireland could still mount serious challenges in the World Cup. My native land has more to do. As one fan is supposed to have remarked: "Ah well, it's back to the draining board."

Another privilege of the columnist is that he can imagine six impossible things before breakfast and then write about them. Here I confine myself to one: a Celtic Nations XV to play in the World Cup, with or without the New Zealand exiles, but replacing Scotland, Wales and Ireland as separate nations. I think such an outfit would give the countries from the southern hemisphere a good run for their money. But, as we know, it will never happen.