Rugby Union: Bracken's pass at glory

Richard Williams hears how a remodelled action has projected the man at England's hub
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF ENGLAND, more than ever, are the team everyone else loves to hate, then Kyran Bracken is a natural choice to ensure that the distinction - the most explicit of backhanded compliments - is maintained into the next century. Bright, confident, good-looking, guardedly articulate and affably circumspect, the 23-year-old Bristol scrum-half could be the product of a Twickenham test-tube.

For Jack Rowell, he is clearly a vital component in the machinery of a restyled team with its eyes on the World Cup. For the RFU's marketing men, he shows the potential to be a rugby-playing Ryan Giggs: it's not hard to imagine 12-year-olds around the country putting up the posters, pestering their parents for the video, copying both the reverse pass and the hairstyle.

For a while, though, the Bracken experiment looked like a failure. Introduced in place of the injured Dewi Morris for the match against the All Blacks at Twickenham early last season, he followed that explosive debut with two less impressive performances, leading the England management to revert to a trust in Morris's experience and appetite for a scrap. Bracken's studies forced him to miss the summer tour of South Africa, which marked the beginning of the Jack Rowell era, and a knee operation interrupted his preparations for the new season. When England played their first home match under Rowell, against Romania in November, Morris was in possession of the No 9 shirt and Bracken was on the bench. A 54-3 winning margin did nothing to prepare either of them for what was to come next.

"Three weeks after the Romania game," Bracken said last week, "there was the usual weekend of training at Twickenham. They still hadn't picked the side to play the next match, against Canada. The team that had played against Romania were the team that were training, and the rest of us spent the whole session on bags" - meaning that the six replacements were used as cannon fodder, holding up the tackle shields for Rodber, Clarke, Richards and the rest to run into at full tilt. Not the best fun.

"You can sometimes assume from the way you're training that that's going to be the team," Bracken continued. "So the rest of us resigned ourselves to being on the bench. For Jack to turn round and make two changes was a bit of a shock. He sat us down, told us he was ready to announce the team, and said, `There'll be two changes.' That was a surprise because we'd beaten Romania comfortably. We were all thinking, `Is it me, or who is it?' He said: `First, at number eight . . .' and he told us he was bringing Dean Richards back. And then: `At scrum-half . . .' and it was me.

"I'd had the operation on my knee, and I didn't go to South Africa, and I was thinking, goodness me, where's this come from? Fortunately the game went well."

And how had Dewi Morris taken the news?

"I didn't get to speak to Dewi, really. He did say, `Well done,' but I can imagine he wasn't too happy. It was no reflection on his play. He'd had a good game against Romania. I think Jack was experimenting."

At the time he won his first cap, Bracken was still at university. When he returned, he was in his first month as an articled clerk at a firm of Bristol solicitors. And he could hardly have hoped for a more auspicious resumption. Canada provided good enough opposition to make a serious game of it, while the 60-19 scoreline ensured plenty of entertainment for the capacity crowd. And, to crown it all, there was Bracken's first try for England, at the end of a dazzling nine-pass move which raised the roof as England's supporters bore witness to the fruit of Rowell's strategy.

"Yes, it was my sort of game," Bracken said. "There was a lot of expansive rugby. The pack were firing on all cylinders. Some might say that Canada aren't on the same level as the teams in the Five Nations', but they're a good side and they caused us problems. I went out there two years ago on the A team tour, and we lost the first Test, so I knew they were a decent side. But I think we played superbly."

Unsurprisingly, Bracken is full of enthusiasm for the philosophies of Rowell and his assistant, Les Cusworth. "As compared to the last set-up, now we're deliberately trying to play this very expansive game," he said. "If we're going to have any chance of winning the World Cup, we've got to be able to play a certain way, which means scoring tries. No disrespect to the other coaches, but Jack Rowell seems to have helped us along the path that Geoff Cooke led us to. I remember last year during the Five Nations', when we hadn't crossed the line in four or five games, Rugby Special was all about England winning without scoring tries. Now there seems to be the predictability of England scoring two or three tries a game, which is exciting."

The management team are taking a particularly close interest in Bracken's individual development, to the extent that in the autumn Don Rutherford, technical director of the RFU, asked the former Bath and England scrum- half Richard Hill, who won 30 caps between 1984 and 1991, to work on his passing.

"Kyran's a good all-round scrum-half," Hill said last week. "His kicking is good, and he's fast and strong on the break. What we've been trying to do is improve the speed of his pass." To this end, playing the David Leadbetter to Bracken's Nick Faldo, Hill has dismantled his existing technique and given him a new action, replacing a conventional sweeping style - the ball leaving the hands with the arms fully extended - with a whipping movement that uses the wrists and forearms to deliver the ball before the elbows have straightened.

In terms of benefit, Hill said, it means getting the ball through to Andrew, Carling or Guscott perhaps half a second earlier - a difference of four or five paces in the proximity of the onrushing defenders. "And the way rugby is nowadays, there's so little time that anything you can make up is valuable."

"It's a different sort of pass," Bracken said. "It's a push using the wrists, rather than bringing the whole body into it. And it'll take a long time for me to adopt it properly. In two or three seasons I might have the knack of it." Against Wales in Cardiff last month, for instance, it broke down and his passes spun and looped to the outside- half in a way that formed an obvious contrast with the flat bullets fired by Robert Jones, the reference point for modern scrum-halves.

For Hill, the aim is not just to get Bracken to equal Jones's standard but to enable him, eventually, to exceed it. "Which will take some doing," Hill said. "It's a lot of hard work, and it'll take time. We'll be pushed to get it done for the World Cup. It was asking a lot to get him to make such a complete change at the same time as he was coming back into the international arena. Normally, it's the sort of thing you'd work on in the comparative peace and quiet of club rugby. He doesn't have that luxury."

"I was finding it hard to get the ball away from rucks and mauls in Cardiff," Bracken said, "because I had Jenkins on my back, and their flanker, and they were bordering on . . . well, on very offside. They were coming in from behind me when I was trying to get the ball away. On the day, with a wet ball, it was difficult. But in the other games I've tried to speed it up. In Ireland it was starting to come through. And hopefully against Scotland . . . ."

As for the England management, Rowell and Cusworth have been concentrating on the team aspects of the scrum-half's play. "They've been talking about things I didn't realise before, like following play, using different lines of running, all sorts of things which have helped tremendously."

Asked to be more specific, he declined. "Well, I wouldn't like to give too much away. It's just that from the scrum-half's point of view, you've got to follow play so that you can get the ball away as quickly as possible to the backs from set plays. Now if your line of running is in the wrong direction, you're not going to get there quickly enough, or you're going to get there too quickly, or you're not going to be in position to cover if things go wrong. And there are certain defensive things around the fringes of the back row which he's talked to me about, which have made a difference. I feel a lot more comfortable now."

And as for Robert Jones, whom Bracken greatly admires, one wonders what would he give for the chance to work behind the England pack, and that fearsome back row.

"Oh God, yeah. Incredible. Well, you wouldn't want to be playing against them, would you?"