Rugby Union: Caught between a ruck and a hard place: Steve Bale assesses the benefits of an England B tutorial in the harsh realities of antipodean rugby union

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WHEN the England management talked, as they frequently did, of coming to New Zealand to learn, they knew that the lessons might be cruel because the rugby might be crude in the extreme. Alas, the lamentable case of Victor Ubogu's ear, not forgetting Stuart Barnes's tirade against the refereeing of Colin Hawke, will be remembered as vividly as the rugby.

Barnes's pioneering B tourists narrowly lost both Tests to the New Zealand XV - and Ubogu dearly wishes he had not been there on Sunday for the second, because after all the thankless toil he simply wanted to get home once Chris Tregaskis's boot had shredded his ear in the first international.

In the end a flight could not be found and Ubogu, his ear beautifully stitched but protruding at an eccentric angle, had to watch while his friends were going down again in Pukekohe. Formally, the matter is closed with no action taken against the culprit, but we may not have heard the last of it.

Graham Smith, the tour manager, will have some unequivocal things to say when he reports to the Rugby Football Union, specifically about the shocking Ubogu incident and generally about the way some New Zealanders of England's acquaintance use rucking as an excuse for stamping.

Until Barnes launched into Hawke after the Pukekohe match England were careful - perhaps too careful - not to be seen to be whingeing Poms, though all the while they had discreetly taken up Ubogu's injury at the highest level. Michael Pearey, the senior RFU official accompanying the party, had been charged by Smith with approaching Eddie Tonks, the chairman of the New Zealand RFU.

The problem was that the video recording adduced no conclusive evidence, though it was evident that something was going on. 'They totally agree that they are 100 per cent behind stamping out stamping,' Smith said. Which was nice to hear, and at least his point had been made.

'In certain situations people are trampled on not to release the ball but just as a physical punishment, which is totally unacceptable,' the manager added. 'The difference between rucking and stamping is quite clear and they do a great disservice by not stopping it.'

So this was a useful lesson, if not exactly what was wanted. More salient in the development of future England players was the consistent dynamism of New Zealand forward play and the way the tourists came to terms with it sufficiently to win their six non-Test matches, all but one by substantial margins.

Given the importance attached by the coaches to winning - less as an end in itself than as the best means of player advancement - this record is not to be denigrated, even though the B team's calibre was seriously underestimated when the NZRFU drew up an inadequate tour schedule.

It was fairly clear before England ever reached New Zealand who would be worthy of advancement, and no less so at the end. Hunter, de Glanville, Underwood, Barnes and Back were among the inspirations, though whether the senior England management see it that way is arguable.

England laced their rugby with some spectacular try-scoring and the statistics, averaging 5 1/2 tries and 34 points a match, reflected occasional style that went with considerable substance. 'The primary objective was to develop players to a higher level so that they could slot into the England A team,' Mike Slemen, the backs coach and about to become assistant England coach, said: 'Individually, there are maybe half a dozen capable of fitting into a settled England team.

'Some of them have taken giant strides, and there have been some disappointments though not in the players we'd pinpointed beforehand. We should remember that not everybody can play for England but the more players we have coming through towards the top the more selective we can be. They have all been asked the question; some know the answers.'

It has already been laid down from Twickenham that another B tour should take place in 1996; Smith, Slemen and the head coach, Jack Rowell, insist that it should be to a major rugby nation. Whether it will be under the B banner is another matter, since Smith and Slemen, who have done so much to raise B standards and expectations, want to do away with a label which they believe is both derogatory and inaccurate.

'I'll be telling Twickenham we should drop the B tag,' Smith said. 'Calling this the England B team didn't help the profile of this tour. Personally, I can't see any objection to calling it an England XV.' Getting that through the RFU committee may, however, prove even harder than beating New Zealand.

ENGLAND B IN NEW ZEALAND: P 8, W 6, L 2. Points for: 273; against: 127. Tries for: 45; against: 10. Leading points-scorer: S Barnes 74 (tries 2, conversions 15, penalties 11, drop goals 1). Leading try-scorers: A Harriman, T Underwood 6; N Back, M Bayfield, P de Glanville, S Hackney, S Ojomoh, H Thorneycroft 3.

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