Rugby Union: Chapman concentrates on the silver lining

Chris Hewett hears a debutant tourist is determined to learn from a sour summer
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The Independent Online
IT IS hardly stretching a point to suggest that England will want to forget everything that happened to them during the first five matches of their southern hemisphere tour from hell, although the more cheerful members of a shattered squad insist that the Big Mac and double fries in Invercargill had something going for it. Clive Woodward and company should, however, store one serious comment in their collective memory bank; indeed, they will ignore it at their peril.

"Tackling," said Dominic Chapman, the Richmond wing, "is a state of mind. It can't all be about size and strength and power, because that would make Jonah Lomu unstoppable by anyone of smaller physique. Matt Perry is no Lomu, but he stopped him down in Dunedin, didn't he? If your technique is sound enough, if your timing is right and you really want to make the tackle, you'll work it out."

Sadly, England have not worked it out nearly often enough on this trip. As Chapman readily admits, the half-tackle that might effectively impede an opponent at Allied Dunbar Premiership level is nowhere near sufficient to worry a Wallaby or All Black threequarter, whether he happens to be built like Lomu or is more reminiscent of the rest of human race. It is too simplistic to account for the southern advantage in pounds and ounces. What they possess is dynamism, allied to exceptional skills and error counts so low as to border on the subterranean.

Oddly enough, Chapman was one of the few English backs to win even the merest smidgeon of approval from the hard-bitten All Black cognoscenti. The New Zealanders were impressed not only by his extreme pace - a quality that really is essential in the modern, Super 12-driven game - but his willingness to mix it with all-comers. So why was he given an early flight home?

"My left ankle has gone again. It's an old injury and the latest flare- up prevented me training properly in the week following the game in Invercargill. Had I been an automatic Test selection, I'd have got myself on to the pitch somehow. But with nothing now left outside of the Tests, it seemed sensible to go. At least I'll get to see my girlfriend in Los Angeles on the way back."

Chapman talks a good deal about the size issue and the cult of worship surrounding height, weight, muscle bulk and all the rest of it; unsurprisingly, given that the England management has become so publicly obsessed with the "big is beautiful" idea. At a boyish 12st sopping wet and an unprepossessing 5ft 9in, hewas significantly smaller than all the wings - Ben Tune of Australia, Glen Osborne of New Zealand A and Doug Howlett of the New Zealand Academy - to whom he squared up during his five weeks on tour.

"It's not the point, though, is it?" he remarked. "Quite obviously, I'm never going to be big in the physical sense, although all of us can improve our strength and power given the right sort of conditioning. But I don't buy the theory that international rugby will soon be the exclusive preserve of the giants. There is more to the game than that."

When Chapman insists that at no stage during his two and a bit matches did he feel under defensive pressure, you believe him; he is not the sort to gloss over his own shortcomings and anyway, some of his tackling against an Australian side in full flood proved that it is possible for a little guy to shut up shop.

"If I'm disappointed about anything, it's the lack of opportunity to do a bit with the ball in my hands," he admitted before flying home. "I was picked for one thing and one thing only: my ability to attack opponents at pace. Sure, I scored a try against the Academy, but the chances were few and far between.

"People ask whether it has been possible to find enjoyment in a tour that has so obviously gone wrong on the field. It is perfectly possible, of course, and I've certainly taken something from the trip, although the disappointment of Brisbane, in particular, was pretty hard to bear. We all need to go home, rest up and reflect, both on the positives and the negatives. When that process is complete, I'm sure each member of the party will have learned some invaluable lessons. You have to remember the shortage of international experience among the squad. New Zealand is the one place in world rugby where you need a lot of people who have been around a bit. That degree of experience hasn't been available."