Rugby Union: Cusworth outlines his vision of verve: Chris Rea talks to the new England coach about his exercise in style

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The Independent Online
WATCHING the re-run of last Saturday's match at Twickenham, my American companion was surprisingly quick on the uptake. He understood the basic theory, if not the mechanics, of the scrums and line-outs. He had no problems with the rucks and mauls and, unlike the Welsh backs, he was beginning to understand the concept of offside. As a sportsman of considerable distinction, he winced at the sacking of Rob Andrew, pointing out that, on one occasion at least, it was Ben Clarke, not Andrew, who should have taken the punishment. But what baffled him was that the losers and the side which had come so perilously close to disintegration, should have been presented with the trophy.

Yet the merits or otherwise of determining the Five Nations' Championship on points difference is the least important aspect of what has been a disappointing series. The Welsh revival was real enough, although from the depths of the defeat by Canada it was questionable whether they had much further to sink. On the evidence of last Saturday, they are still a very long way from the summit. Forget the margin of England's victory. Wales were as comprehensively outplayed as at any time in their recent inglorious past, and those Weshmen who sneered at the suggestion that England were steadily moving into a higher league may not be so smugly complacent now. England were, by some distance, the best side in the championship, despite their grand larceny at Murrayfield and their loss by misadventure to Ireland. Against Wales, they came tantalisingly close to achieving the ideal balance between the pragmatic and the quixotic.

Les Cusworth, newly installed as coaching assistant to Jack Rowell and Dick Best, believes that this should be England's template for the future: 'When people ask, 'what is England's style?' we should proudly point to the best moments of that game against Wales.' Cusworth, a disciple of Chalkie White at Leicester, has been preaching the gospel of individual liberty and freedom of expression ever since diverting his nimble mind from the playing field to the drawing board. Cusworth, more than anyone, appreciates the importance of the club environment in the development of players. 'I was so fortunate at Leicester where they extolled and exploited my strengths and lived with my weaknesses. As a touch player with imagination but, initially, without much confidence, I could easily have disappeared without trace. Then I discovered that the higher up you go the finer the line between success and failure. But what makes the difference between the one and the other? Mind or matter?'

This, Cusworth believes, is fertile but largely unknown territory for exploration. 'Why is it, for example, that players of equal ability and outlook, confronted by the same situation on the field, should offer so many different responses?' The Rugby Football Union is already hot on the investigative trail, its recently formed sub- committee determined that no psychological barrier will be too high or too wide. But in Cusworth's manual, the key to unlocking the most resistant of minds can be found in the words enjoyment and confidence. To that end he has devised a series of exercises, many culled from his boyhood days before videos and computers usurped outdoor pursuits and stifled creative thought.

The competitive practices are carefully structured and designed to keep the players under constant pressure, so that when the call comes, Cusworth's backs are ready. 'Sometimes I think that our training sessions for backs are more for the benefit of the media than they are for the players. So often they lack urgency and realism.' Cusworth concedes that it is quite unrealistic to expect that England can win every match by reckless adventure and flowing rugby. 'But what is important is that the players have the self-belief and the support of the selectors to think beyond the safe option of percentage rugby.'

How often during his playing career did Cusworth's wider vision lift Leicester on to a higher plane? But he had some mighty allies in those halcyon days. Alongside him were Clive Woodward and Paul Dodge and, pounding the beat in front, then as now, was Dean Richards. 'I don't think I have ever known anyone with such reserves of inner strength.' Cusworth recalled the occasion when Richards was leading the pack at Welford Road and the Leicester forwards had played abysmally throughout the first half. 'During his half-time talk, Dean went up to a couple of the forwards and gave them one hell of a slapping about the head. I thought there would be an almighty punch-up, but such is the man's stature the players accepted the rebuke and played their socks off in the second half.'

As the England team erupted on to Twickenham last Saturday like so many Roman candles, Richards came stumbling along behind. He had barely played any rugby for three months yet, until exhaustion inevitably overtook him, he gave one of the most commanding performances of his international career. He is now installed as a national monument and as such will surely enjoy the protection of England's new selection panel which includes his former clubmate Cusworth.

Richards was one of the first to welcome him into the fold. But of the many messages of goodwill Cusworth received, two stand out. One was from Mike Slemen, whom Cusworth deposed as a selector, the other from Tim Buttimore, a club colleague at Leicester. 'Mike made the point that so much of England's success depended upon attitudes in the clubs. And I got a card from Buttimore - 'Expect to see Carling advance five paces, Andrew whip the ball through his legs and Guscott on the burst. Anything less would be a gross betrayal of your principles.' ' If that is not precisely how Cusworth sees the build-up to England's next try, the future looks anything but dull.