Rugby Union: Cooke's final ambition is on the line: Richard Williams reflects on a disciplined performance that was short of inspiration

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The Independent Online
Ireland 6 Scotland 6: Report, page 7

SO, after their seventh consecutive win over France, England go back to Twickenham in a fortnight's time with hopes of denying Wales the Grand Slam. More importantly, the players will hope to give Geoff Cooke the sort of farewell his brilliant achievements of 1991-92 deserve. Just one try would do.

Restored to the role of first- choice kicker for the first time in five seasons, Rob Andrew booted all England's 18 points yesterday. Which means that, as you read this over the Sunday, it will be exactly 365 days since England last crossed the try-line.

What must Jeremy Guscott and the Underwood brothers have been on that enabled them to cross the Scottish line three times at Twickenham on 6 March, 1993? Whatever it was, why can't England's coaches find some more? Yesterday, over the course of 80-odd minutes of play, England failed to carry the ball in hand into the French 22 even once. On the sole occasion on which they came within a few yards of a meaningful handling incursion, Will Carling looped behind Phil de Glanville to take advantage of a miss-move and then promptly ran straight back into his fellow centre.

Cooke will have been pleased with the discipline of his side in the first half, when France were allowed no sniff of a penalty, but the overall display was all too typical of what recent England victories there have been, gained at the expense of any semblance of entertainment. To think of the 15 tries they scored in the second of their two consecutive Grand Slam seasons only two years ago is to dream of another game altogether.

For minute after endless minute yesterday France and England grumbled away at each other like a pair of toothless pensioners squabbling over the last cucumber sandwich. Only as the match entered its final quarter did the tempo rise to something resembling that of an international.

If the climactic exhange of penalties between Andrew and Lacroix was exciting enough, in a penny-dreadful, cheap-

thriller sort of way, their respective coaches will be only too aware that for most of the time these two sides looked less like potential finalists in the 1995 World Cup, which is their avowed ambition, than like the participants in a Sunday morning veterans' match. Such a consideration may now be immaterial to Geoff Cooke, who has only a fortnight to go before he retires from the international scene, but it must weigh heavy on Pierre Berbizier's mind.

Berbizier talks a good game, insisting that fantasy must take its place alongside rationality within the French game. 'Organised madness' was how he summed up his philosophy on the morning of the match. But the lack of ambition and cohesion - of focus, to use the term so fashionable in other sports - showed how far the French have receded since they lost by a single point and the width of the crossbar at Twickenham last year.

Not much magic, then, and precious little mayhem either, despite the blood-curdling build-up. Apart from a few sharp words with Jason Leonard after the English prop sorted out the giant Abdel Benazzi, Stephen Hilditch's trickiest moment came when he had to explain to a distraught Lacroix why he could not re-take a conversion after the ball had toppled its tee-peg. Disappointingly, too, Jean-Michel Gonzalez and Brian Moore left it until after the final whistle to exchange jerseys.

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