Rugby Union: England expect while Wales hope

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The Independent Online
IT SHOULD be made clear that what follows has been compiled under the recently announced broadcasting restrictions, forbidding the portrayal of the Welsh as singing simpletons. With that in mind, England, who play Wales in the final Five Nations' Championship match at Wembley this afternoon and who stand on the threshold of a Grand Slam, have been quick to scotch the rumour that they believe their opponents to be tactically naive or that they consider their audacious victory over the French in Paris last month to have been nothing more than a freak of nature

It is, nevertheless, extremely difficult, and probably misleading, to treat that result in isolation from the two defeats which Wales have also suffered in this championship series. On both occasions their capacity to excite and entertain was fatally undermined by their inability to compete, at critical periods, in the close-quarter exchanges. But in Paris, the French, who were still eerily complacent despite their scare at Lansdowne Road, entered into the carnival mood generated from their very first touch by the Welsh, safe, they thought, in the knowledge that for every try scored by their opponents, the French would score at least two.

Malheureusement, it did not work out that way and, whatever the result at Wembley today, that Welsh victory at Stade de France will remain as the imperishable highlight of what has been a vastly more competitive Five Nations than so many of its recent predecessors.

It has been argued that the Welsh, by their willingness to run, and the speed and accuracy with which they have moved the ball this season, especially against France, are making good defences look bad and that England's superbly marshalled rearguard will, for the first time, be fully examined.

That is true to the extent that the further away from the forwards the action is, the harder it is to defend against. On the other hand, Wales may not find it nearly so easy to extract the ball from England's grasp in the rucks and mauls with the same speed and fluency as they did against France, and as they did during their isolated spells of continuous movement against the Scots and the Irish.

So corrosive is England's defence, however, that it can penetrate into the deepest recesses of the opposition and, unlike the French, England will surely not be drawn into an extravaganza of double scissors, triple loops and quadruple dummies. The wise words written and spoken recently urging England not to abandon the prosaic but immensely effective style, which is exclusively theirs and with which they are manifestly so comfortable, appears to have been taken on board by the English coach, Clive Woodward. His selection of Barrie-Jon Mather as Jeremy Guscott's replacement in the centre, hardly suggests a broadening of England's attacking horizons. Mather is built like a forward, and runs like one, using muscle not mind to beat opponents.

Despite the increased tempo of the game, and the statistical evidence to show that the ball is in play for longer periods, the law changes have worked to England's advantage. Where there was once doubt about winning possession there is now certainty. Their scrummage has yielded little during the present campaign, a stability which has been much appreciated by England's ravenous back row, and there has never been the slightest danger of the opposition taking a line-out against the head, as it were.

With the certainty which comes from winning their own ball, particularly from line-outs close to the opposition line, England's forwards have been well-nigh irresistible this season, and if they have yet to translate their effortless frontal superiority into points, the danger that one day they will do so is very real.

Wales have improved, of that there is no doubt, but Paris apart, there is little evidence to suggest that they are yet ready physically to match England. The scale of the French defeat at Twickenham, if not on the scoreboard, then most certainly on the pitch, reinforced the view that brilliantly though Wales played in Paris, the French are not the best yardstick by which to judge those sides who play against them. That much was evident from the events at Stade de France yesterday.

The Welsh have a stout-hearted and strong midfield capable of taking a battering from England's biggest and best yet able to switch seamlessly to penetrating attack. Their confidence in running the ball from all parts of the field is a tribute to their skill and accuracy, and has turned Shane Howarth into a formidable force at full-back. But to succeed today they will require their possession to be as swift as it is clean, a tall order against such consummate stiflers as Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson and Tim Rodber. Howarth can expect to be a tightly marked man and it is worth noting that since England's defeat by the Australians before Christmas no opposing full-back has been given the licence to run.

The criticism directed at England for their lack of imagination and their failure on occasions to offer full entertainment value is the kind of criticism the other countries would happily accept, and doubts as to whether their style, which should be good enough to secure their fourth Grand Slam of the decade, will be up to winning the World Cup in the autumn, can wait for another day.