Rugby Union: Catt has to shoulder responsibility

Five Nations' Championship: Wales aim to ruin Grand Slam dreams of England in the tournament's final act at Wembley
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IT HAS not been the best of decades for Welsh self-confidence. Back in the early 1970s, Barry John viewed the annual Five Nations bunfight with England as a foregone conclusion - "You could always tell when we were playing them, because the touts couldn't get rid of their tickets," he once joked - and, as recently as the late 80s, Jonathan Davies took malicious pleasure in winding up sundry red rose battalions before making them choke on their old school ties. Now, in the last match of the last Five Nations in the last year of the century, the boot is on the other foot.

The way Graham Henry and Rob Howley tell it, this current English side is the rugby equivalent of Kryptonite; the Welsh coach credits Lawrence Dallaglio and company with a place in the world's top three, while his captain goes one better by calling them the best in the business. "If you're waiting for me to criticise England and pick holes in the way they play, you're wasting your time," said Henry in answer to a suggestion that he might be over-egging the admiration bit just a little. "They beat the world champions in December and should have beaten Australia the previous week. Doesn't that say something about the quality they possess?"

It certainly does, and it would be reasonable to suggest that, had any two of Jeremy Guscott, Phil de Glanville, Will Greenwood and Jonny Wilkinson been inhabiting the England midfield at Wembley tomorrow afternoon, the touts might have found themselves even more out of pocket than they were back in the heyday of King John. The fact that only Wilkinson can boast the full complement of serviceable limbs rather alters the balance of the contest, however, to the extent that Wales sense a realistic chance of denying the Grand Slam favourites at the death.

To do so, they will need to pilfer 40 per cent of the ball - no easy matter against an English pack playing out of its rhinoesque skin. The newcomers to the Welsh eight, Peter Rogers and Ben Evans in the front row and Brett Sinkinson on the open-side flank, are likely discover rather more about themselves tomorrow than they learned in their previous outings against France and Italy; Sinkinson, in particular, can expect some real heat from Neil Back, and if the ball-winning New Zealander fails to deliver amid the boots and bullets, his colleagues will spend an unpleasant afternoon peering into their own nether regions.

But confronted only by a huge swathe of English inexperience out wide - Steve Hanley and Barrie-Jon Mather are debutants while the cherubic Wilkinson has only six caps in his school satchel - the quality Red Dragon backs should ensure a handsome return on whatever possession their forwards produce. From Howley at scrum-half to Shane Howarth at full-back, the Welsh are richly endowed in the ideas department and increasingly adept at turning theory into practise.

Clive Woodward, the England coach, talked up his own threequarters with such enthusiasm yesterday that he made Henry sound positively churlish. "Hanley and Mather bring something extra to the team and I'm sure Wales fear our back division," he said. "I'm fielding the best available English team and I'm totally relaxed about it; we're certainly not going to play any differently and having won three from three in this championship, there is no reason why we shouldn't go in with genuine confidence in our ability to finish on a high."

But Woodward was forced to concede that the injuries to Guscott and David Rees, the Sale wing, had deposited a whole truckload of extra responsibility on the less than reliable shoulders of Mike Catt, who wins his 34th cap at outside-half. "We have pace and power in this new back-line and I'm excited by that, but the reorganisation means Mike will have to lead. There is more emphasis on Mike's performance this time, for sure."

That will have come as music to Welsh ears. Largely because of their line-out fragility - their recent performances in that crucial phase have come as close as the game is ever likely to get to situation comedy - and their suspect organisation in the face of driving mauls, the Welsh fear English tactical kicking, as practised by Wilkinson or Paul Grayson, more than they fear Catt's obsession with breaking the land speed record every time he receives the ball. Ultimately, the Grand Slam depends on Catt's ability to control his own instincts and, by extension, the game.

All in all, then, a fitting swansong for the world's oldest international rugby tournament, which expands to incorporate the Italians next season. It will be noisy, passionate and very edgy, just as the best Wales-England matches have always been. As dear old Dudley Wood, the former Rugby Football Union secretary, liked to say in his plummy voice: "Our relationship with the Welsh is all about trust and understanding. They don't trust us and we don't understand them."


at Wembley

S Howarth (Sale) 15 M Perry (Bath)

G Thomas (Cardiff) 14 D Luger (Harlequins)

M Taylor (Swansea) 13 B-J Mather (Sale)

S Gibbs (Swansea) 12 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)

D James (Harlequins) 11 S Hanley (Sale)

N Jenkins (Pontypridd) 10 M Catt (Bath)

R Howley (Cardiff, capt) 9 M Dawson (Northampton)

P Rogers (London Irish) 1 J Leonard (Harlequins)

G Jenkins (Swansea) 2 R Cockerill (Leicester)

B Evans (Swansea) 3 D Garforth (Leicester)

C Quinnell (Richmond) 4 M Johnson (Leicester)

C Wyatt (Llanelli) 5 T Rodber (Northampton)

C Charvis (Swansea) 6 R Hill (Saracens)

B Sinkinson (Neath) 7 N Back (Leicester)

S Quinnell (Llanelli) 8 L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt)

Referee: A Watson (South Africa) Kick-off: 4.0 tomorrow (BBC1)