Rugby Union: Creative urges worth a try: Can England bounce back? Chris Rea argues that rugby's resistance to change is checking progress

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER tryless day for England, another week of law bashing. At a time when amateurism is crumbling, the fiercest debate is reserved for the ruck and maul. Fiddling while Rome burns perhaps, but for England, after four games without a try, the drama has become a crisis.

It may be coincidence that the stiffest resistance to the changes has come from the country least willing to adapt to them. The list of complaints reads like a traffic report - lane closures, speed restrictions and congestion caused by pile-ups. Charges have been laid that the laws are unworkable, unrefereeable, unfair and are making the game indistinguishable from - close your eyes - rugby league.

No half-decent rugby league club would tolerate the standards set by either side at Twickenham last Saturday. And any back line as impoverished of creative energy and as technically bankrupt as England's would have their contracts of employment terminated on the spot. As for the new laws being at odds with the principle of fair play, what in heaven's name was remotely fair about a player making half a dozen wrong decisions and still retaining possession for his side?

No, the problem is that the law changes are making demands on players and coaches which all too few are willing, let alone able, to meet. They have laid bare the barrenness of the planning of the last 20 years. They have revealed the inadequacy of skill levels and

decision-making, not just in England but throughout the country. But it is in England where attitudes appear to be most implacably set against change. England's game against Ireland was almost totally devoid of invention, as was the performance of their A side the previous day. Set against the spectacle of Cardiff, it was a melancholy reflection of the prevailing mood.

One of the most influential voices raised in support of the crusading for a return to the old ways is the Australian coach Bob Dwyer. But Dwyer has had the good sense to make the best of what he still believes is a very bad job. And if an example of the best that can be done in the circumstances was the second international between France and Australia last November, then that will suffice for most. It was a game of enterprise, grace, power and thrilling movement, a contrast in style between two mighty packs and two flowing back divisions, one striking from the deep, the other steering breathtakingly close to the opposition lines.

Listening to Mickey Skinner on BBC's Grandstand in the aftermath of England's defeat, it was hard to know whether it was blazered buffoonery or serious comment. If it was the latter, it is symptomatic of so many of the game's ills in England. If his remarks that the backs are nancy boys or such like and that the real game is played by the macho hell- raisers in the pack were half in jest, they are the firmly held views of many.

England lost not because of their failure to keep the ball in the forwards, but because they couldn't move the ball away from their forwards fast enough, and because their backs had neither the expertise nor, in one or two cases, the heart, to break down a resolute defence. There are eight forwards and seven backs, and the days when neither encroached on the others' territory have long gone. The two are inextricably linked.

Clive Woodward, capped 21 times by England and one of the finest centres ever to have played for his country, came to this conclusion in his first match for Manly against Randwick during a spell in Australia towards the end of his playing career. He went through the game in a state of bewilderment as backs and forwards ran at him from all angles and at blistering pace. 'For the next game, I made bloody sure that they picked me at fly half,' he said. But Woodward marvelled at the quality of the game in Australia and was rapidly converted to their coaching methods he is now attempting to implant into the hearts and minds of players and coaches in this country. At the behest of Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director, and with the assistance of Michael Hawker, the former Wallaby centre, Woodward has been preaching his gospel at national level. But the chief beneficiaries have been Henley, top of South West Division One and with ambitions to go much higher.

The blame lies not at national level, but with the clubs. Of the premier clubs in England, only Bath and Leicester have come to terms with the game as it must now be played. Leicester have managed to graft the new on to the old beef and brawn of their traditional mauling game, but Bath, early on before fatigue set in, really cracked the system. They were slaughtering opponents with zestful exuberance. With Brian Ashton's northern roots showing, their backs were becoming increasingly dominant, proving that the notion of flying wingers, swerving centres and breaking fly-halves is not just for the romantics.

Australia, the world champions, have built an entire strategy around their midfield. But what would we have made of a David Campese, a Tim Horan or a Marty Roebuck? What, on the other hand, would the Australians have made of a Guscott - of whose glacial talents we have seen only the tip - a Carling or an Andrew? And why is it that, in a country producing a forest of forwards, there is only one Mike Catt?

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