RUGBY UNION: England heading for another world

The Grand Slam champions focus on South Africa still needing to refine their game further, argues Steve Bale
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If some of the England players - those who would occupy the moral high ground, anyway - have been disappointed with the disappointed reaction to their own disappointment at the manner of their Grand Slam, they may also care to regard it in another, more positive light.

Whatever illicit sorcery the Scots may have perpetrated in questioning England's presumption of superiority, it served to show the would-be World Cup winners that their game might just need further refinement before they can presume anything about encounters with the likes of Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.

A long time ago Will Carling himself said: "If everything goes right, we won't see our full potential until May 1995." Based on that judgement, the captain could argue that his England side had it exactly right during their efficient, but scarcely euphoric progress through the 1995 Five Nations' Championship.

So the Scots' unwillingness to grant the free hand certain England players seem to think should be theirs by right will have done an unwitting service if it persuades the self-same self-righteous ones that they are, after all, not - not quite and not yet - what they had cracked themselves up to be.

That said, England are third favourites for the World Cup behind Australia and South Africa and, as these are the holders and hosts respectively, third-favouritism is a worthy rating. However, the events of last Saturday's championship climax did nothing in themselves to persuade anyone that England could move on from here and become good enough to beat the other favourites.

Jack Rowell, the coach, acknowledged this and we can only take it on trust that it will happen, because in the event if England progress they could well have to play the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies in succession. The propaganda requirement in the interim between championship and World Cup is to eulogise southern-hemisphere rugby rather as various English luminaries were praising Scotland for more than they were worth before the Twickenham climax. Afterwards, they seemed to have changed their minds.

In the 1991 World Cup it was England who were the butt of criticism, which may explain their attitude now, though it is impossibly dangerous to trumpet occupation of the moral high ground. The next time Brian Moore transgresses, for instance, one imagines he might be accused of hypocrisy.

It is the annoying thing about the Australians that everyone bar the England team was seduced by the secondary triumph of their public relations when they won the '91 tournament and, ever since, all their opponents have complained that they kick just as much as anyone else, and that they infringe just as much as anyone else, including Scots.

Alas for these moaners, they still do both better than anyone else and continue to occupy the moral high ground because no one has yet come up with a persuasive reason why they should not stay there. If you are English, especially perhaps Brian Moore, this is excruciating but then Moore is primarily a winner and he has taken some delight in never setting out to be loved.

On the other hand, if you can be both, you are doubly blessed. Like the Wallabies: they contrive to reserve their worst performances for the worse opposition and their best for the better. In other words, when they play badly it comes when they can still eke out a victory - for example, against Italy and Ireland last year.

It is early days in the southern-hemisphere season but the form-lines between South Africa, New Zealand and Australia provided by the Super 10 competition are generally favourable to the latter, Queensland obliterating Auckland at Eden Park and New South Wales drawing with North Harbour, also in Auckland.

And, wondrously, Tim Horan, the majestic Wallaby centre who suffered a fearful leg injury playing for Queensland in Natal last year, has successfully completed his first comeback 15-a-side match and could now make the squad.

There is therefore no reason for Bob Dwyer, Australia's coach and the master strategist, tactician and analyst of world rugby, to believe other than that the Wallabies' build-up is precisely as advanced as he would wish it to be two months before they arrive in South Africa.

Beyond that, though, he will not go. "We would never be confident; I could never allow myself to think in those terms," he said. "I just think in terms of what we need to do to be ready, and right now I would say our preparations have been pretty good. But preparations can be misleading. We may be heading in the right direction but we're some way off being 100 per cent ready."

Which is roughly what Jack Rowell, the England manager, might say about his team at the end of the Five Nations. Or, for that matter, Scotland's Douglas Morgan, who at least knows that his side will be competitive in South Africa - and that is more than he knew when the Scots had lost nine consecutive internationals coming in to the new year.

The same could hardly be said about Ireland and Wales, though the way their World Cup pool is structured one or other is bound to reach the quarter-finals along with New Zealand. Having already seen off France in Paris, the Scots will now fancy a pool win and a quarter-final against Wales or Ireland instead of the game against New Zealand that will go to the runners-up.

Mention of the All Blacks brings with it the good news for everyone else that the New Zealand game is in a state of turmoil as badly timed as it is possible to imagine with the World Cup imminent. Poor results in the Super 10 have been one thing but the apparently successful start for Auckland's Winfield Cup rugby league franchise is quite another, not only because of the obvious threat to syphon off rugby union talent but also because of its incalculable impact in undermining union's status as the national sport.

On the other hand, their rousing performance in narrowly losing last year's fantastic Bledisloe Cup match in Sydney was evidence of a talented young team with time to develop before the World Cup as well as of the perils of idly dismissing anything that represents New Zealand rugby.

The same can now be said of South African rugby after the arduous first years of its international reintroduction because, though their recent tour of Scotland and Wales left a rather contradictory memory, they had left half a team of injured players at home.

They meet Australia in the first match in Cape Town on 25 May and at this distance each has every chance of meeting the other again in the final match in Johannesburg 30 days later.