Rugby Union Commentary: Big emerges as best down in the West

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The Independent Online
IDEAS about the All Blacks have changed over a week that has seemed to be a long, long time. But while the tourists were struggling to beat the Midlands and then South- West after thrashing London they gave evidence in support of Geoff Cooke's unchanged theory of the essential build of back-row forwards.

Thus the defining moments for the England manager were none of those with which Neil Back provided continuity and creativity at Leicester last Tuesday. Instead, it was when New Zealand scored the try early in the second half which gave them Saturday's 19-15 win at Redruth.

Back was 300 miles away but the point for Cooke was that Andy Robinson, a flanker of similarly modest, 5-10 proportions, could not smash Arran Pene backwards as the All Black No 8 drove the ball on from a scrum. From Pene, it passed through Va'aiga Tuigamala and Paul Henderson to Jamie Joseph, who scored.

'It just shows a big man against a smaller one,' Cooke said. 'Andy made his tackle but they still got away for the try.' Henderson, it should be noted, is scarcely a leviathan either, but as Cooke is swimming with most others - notably the French - in the international tide we can take it that his remarks bode ill for Back.

He may also be reviewing his position on Jonathan Callard after the full-back's ordeal at Redruth. More important for the All Blacks even than their try was that the superb Matthew Cooper kicked everything - four penalties and the conversion - that came his way. Callard missed four from eight.

Some were badly mis-hit, the occasion by Callard's own admission having affected his style. Since England are seeking a goal-kicker to succeed Jon Webb, this amounted to the tearing-up of previously impressive credentials. 'I possibly tried a little too hard,' he lamented. 'From 40 metres I tried to get more welly into it instead of sticking to the technique I've been using. Everyone has those days. I've chosen a day when the publicity is great and the game is a great game to perform in. Perhaps I've chosen the wrong day.'

The England team of whom he hopes to be part will be announced at Twickenham next Monday, though the Test remains a month off. It will be a juddering, hard- nosed confrontation if the ferocity of Redruth is anything to go by. The overriding need to take on the All Blacks at close quarters is now so established - through London's failure as much as the Midlands' and South-West's close-run things - that we can be sure there will nothing especially flamboyant about England.

Nor should there be. 'London seemed to take complete leave of their senses; the Midlands and South-West looked as if they absorbed the lessons and tried to apply them,' Cooke said. 'You have to nail your goals, take your chances and not give anything away.' Easy to say, well-nigh impossible to do.

Kicking for the corners with the ball and, without it, tackling without pause were the South-West's prosaic, pragmatic strategy, just as they had been the Midlands'. The odd thing was that the South-West got the ball into Hellfire Corner, the infamous bottom end of the ground where all visitors fear to tread, only once, and then Callard had one of his penalty successes before any play actually took place there.

This was a pity, since Hellfire Corner was one home-team asset which might have outweighed the South-West players' reluctance about Redruth. In the end, though, they were grudgingly won over. 'What I said was that the side was predominantly made up from the Bath club and to win the match we wanted every advantage and the best advantage was to play at Bath,' John Hall, the captain, said. 'Having said that, the crowd were quite exceptional.'

This was only to have been expected from folk for whom rugby makes the heart beat and, instead of moaning, the luminaries who did so would have done far better accentuating the Recreation Ground's positive charms. That Trelawny's Army, or the 16,000 who could cram in, did not have a win to celebrate along with the granting of the fixture was down to that inner strength which has borne All Blacks of every generation through torrid times such as these.

Cooke and the referee, Clayton Thomas, noted how 'street-wise' they were, which can be seen as both criticism and compliment. On the other hand, Thomas penalised them as prolifically as the other tour referees had done and the All Blacks coach, Laurie Mains, professes himself confused as much as concerned. One can well imagine what the Lions would be muttering if they were similarly on the receiving end in New Zealand. Once or twice they were.

Physically on the receiving end on Saturday were the All Black flanker Jamie Joseph, whose rib injury was less serious than first feared, and among the South-westerners Phil de Glanville and Andy Blackmore, both of whom staggered off in a daze, de Glanville needing 15 stiches to repair a ghastly wound round his left eye.

John Lockyer, the South-West's chairman of selectors, said that Graham Dawe's chest 'makes him look like he's been attacked by the Beast of Bodmin', but then that is how Dawe always looks after a game. On a different tack, Lockyer added: 'How Nigel Redman hasn't got 50 caps for England I'll never know.'

Redman, Dawe and Hall, heroic figures among many, exemplified the South-West spirit - an essential virtue of course, but not alone enough against opposition who above all know how to win rugby matches. 'The New Zealand side are definitely beatable,' Hall suggested. True, these were Test- strength All Blacks - but people have been saying the same for 88 years.

South-West: Penalties Callard 4; Drop goal Hull. New Zealand: Try Joseph; Conversion Cooper; Penalties Cooper 4.

SOUTH-WEST: J Callard (Bath); A Lumsden (Bath), N Beal (Northampton), P de Glanville (Bath), P Hull (Bristol); M Catt (Bath), K Bracken (Bristol); C Clark (Oxford University), G Dawe, V Ubogu, N Redman (Bath), A Blackmore (Bristol), J Hall (capt), S Ojomoh, A Robinson (Bath). Replacements: P Holford (Gloucester) for de Glanville, 15; S Ojomoh (Bath) for Robinson, 66; D Sims (Gloucester) for Blackmore, 80.

NEW ZEALAND: J Timu; J Wilson (Otago), F Bunce (North Harbour), M Cooper (Waikato), V Tuigamala (Auckland); S Bachop (Otago), J Preston (Wellington); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown (Auckland), S Gordon (Waikato), I Jones (North Auckland), J Joseph, A Pene (Otago), P Henderson (Southland). Replacement: Z Brooke (Auckland) for Joseph, 78.

Referee: C Thomas (Wales).

(Photograph omitted)