Rugby Union: Cooke cushions disappointment for Back

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The Independent Online
IT WASN'T so long ago during a press conference to announce a national side (not an English one) that the question was asked whether the flankers would be playing left and right or open and blind. 'We're here to give you the team not the bloody tactics,' was the terse response. Compare this with the disarming honesty of the team manager Geoff Cooke at last Monday's announcement of the England squad for Lanzarote.

Open, frank, yet intensely loyal to his players, it was, despite the announcement being made before the final round of matches in the Divisional Championship which rendered this weekend's games even more meaningless than usual, a masterly personal performance and very much in keeping with the enlightened administration at headquarters these days.

The only pity was that the International Board had not sent a representative to observe this exercise in media relations. Furthermore, if England's cricket selectors had been less paranoid about press reaction then we and they might have been spared the rumpus over David Gower's absence from the touring party to India.

Yes, admitted Cooke, Dean Richards would be considered for selection for the French game next month, but his omission from the team to play South Africa and his unavailability for Lanzarote would hinder rather than help his cause. No, there would be little chance of selection in future for specialist props who were unable to contribute fully in the loose. Yes, Darren O'Leary was one of the most exciting young prospects in the country. No, Wade Dooley wasn't playing to his best form but his experience was of incalculable value. And, if for once, he could not rise to the occasion on the international field, England had contingency plans involving Martin Bayfield and, possibly, Martin Johnson. It was marvellous stuff.

Then came the bombshell that every Lilliputian loose-forward had been dreading since the start of the season. The game, Cooke felt, had moved on to the extent that the good little 'un no longer competes on level terms with the good big 'un, and the first casualty of this evolutionary process was Neil Back, peerless in so many areas of the game.

The new laws, or most of them, are tailor-made for players like Back, but as Cooke pointed out, the increased importance of the line-out has meant that the smaller tail-end charlies are being wiped out. It wasn't the most convincing of arguments, however, given the number of big men available to England to cover most of their opponents' line-out ploys.

Much more important in the selectorial reckoning, I suspect, was Back's defence. His ability to stop the opposition is not in question, but his difficulty in knocking them back in the tackle is. I imagine that the try the South African No 8 Adriaan Richter scored against England B at Bristol from a wheeling scrummage would have been cited in any subsequent criticism of Back's performance that day, though I venture to suggest that Willie Ofahengaue himself would not have prevented that try.

Back, who has dedicated himself daily during the past three years to winning an England cap, can do nothing about his size. Monday's announcement must therefore have come as a crushing disappointment. But as I predicted several weeks ago, it was only a matter of time before refugee bands of diminutive flankers began to seek refuge in the front row.

If I were Back, I would be on the phone to Phil Keith-Roach to enrol in a crash course in hooking. It wouldn't take Back long to learn the trade. Hooking is no longer the art form it was, but there were few superior in the craft to Keith-Roach and none better qualified to teach it. The French set the fashion a while back and are continuing the trend with the nomination of Jean-Francois Tordo, an intemperate flanker in a past existence, as both hooker and captain in their squad for Twickenham. I can think of few more suitable candidates at hooker for England's World Cup seven than Back. One thing is now pretty certain - unless England are stricken by an epidemic of illness or injury, Back has as much chance of representing the national side at hooker as he has of playing for them on the flank.

In common with many, Back, who has been the outstanding flanker in the Divisional Championship, will now have a healthy scepticism for the view that this tournament is a conduit to international recognition.

Six of the squad played no part in the championship, and the selection of Victor Ubogu as the only other tight-head prop along with Jeff Probyn means that England have retained their faith in him even if the South-West have not. What is more, he may still be the favourite with the selectors to play against France, but I cannot believe that England would take on what has the makings of a formidable French pack without Probyn's obduracy and technique.

The new laws have not depowered the scrummage to that extent, but how refreshing it was to discover from Don Rutherford that the experimental law at the ruck and maul is finding favour with the majority of junior clubs.

The further down the scale the harder it is for players to cope with the greater emphasis now being placed on skill rather than brute force and ingnorance. Ultimately, the law will improve not only the technical standards in the rucks and mauls, but will force coaches, who have hitherto been unable or unwilling to see beyond the static set-piece, to concentrate on passing, handling, lines of running and, above all, decision making. At last the game is being liberated and it is not the law that is the ass, but those who persist in denigrating it.