Rugby Union: England must cut the flow

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The Independent Online
NOT THE least of Wembley's delights last week was the Welsh attitude. It is one thing to restrict the opposition during the course of a match by putting a brake on their scoring power with all manner of disruptive ploys, but Wales had ideas far above the damage limitation which almost invariably also limits ambition. They were, of course, colossal in defence but it was their determinedly committed and skilful attack which was so heartening. It is this that gives the Welsh genuine hope for the future, because courageous defence, noble and necessary as it is at this level, is very often the last refuge of the inferior.

An uncomplicated game-plan, in which there was ample scope for craft and invention, was executed to perfection, and the fact that so many distinguished Springboks played below their best was due not so much to individual frailties on the day as it was to the quality of the opposition. There are several reasons for the apparent miracle which has been wrought in such a short time in Wales, but there is no doubt that Graham Henry has been an important influence in the transformation. But he, of all people, will know how great a part the surprise element played in last Saturday's contest and that the only true measure of his success will be the continuing rise in the fortunes of Welsh rugby.

Henry was the first to point out that Wales lost. What is more, they were defeated by a side in which only two members played to their known form. Joost van der Westhuizen is, I am sure, capable of playing badly but I have yet to see it. He is the best scrum-half and, very probably, the finest rugby player in the world today, and Rob Howley can take great comfort from the fact that he came so close to matching him. Pieter Rossouw was also savagely destructive, a bulldozer built by Ferrari.

So there is hope and there are warnings for England who, following today's excursion against Italy, must play the two sides ranked one and two in the world in the next fortnight. The hope stems from the fact that the Welsh, without a top-class line-out, so easily contained the Springboks' champion forward, Mark Andrews. The main contributions to the tourists' line-out came from Krynauw Otto and Gary Teichmann but their possession wasn't always of the highest quality. Wales on the other hand were comfortingly in control of their own ball.

England's line-out, with Garath Archer and Martin Johnson supported by their two big and agile back-row men whether they be Ben Clarke, Martin Corry or Lawrence Dallaglio, should not be a problem. Whether their scrummage can be as solid as the Welsh scrum was for all but one fleeting and costly second is another matter.

The stability of the Welsh scrummage was crucial to their success. Denied the luxury of an advancing platform, the Springbok back row were shorn of much of their renowned power. In cricketing parlance, they were forced to do much of their driving off the back foot and were less effective as a result. Their game depends upon the momentum they build from the initial thrust and the increasing speed and accuracy with which they maintain their subsequent attacks. The Welsh succeeded in stalling them at the set piece, which in turn disturbed their flow in the loose.

England's scrummage, the rock upon which so much of their success depended throughout their crowning years in the early and mid- Nineties, is not the force it was. It goes without saying that they will receive a sterner test against the Italians today than they did against Holland last week, but neither will prepare them for what is to come. The English forwards are a match for the South Africans and the Australians in weight and size, but it is how they use their physical attributes that matters. The key to wounding the opposition, as opposed to merely hurting them, lies in athleticism and technique, not simply brute force.

It is the same behind the scrum. Shane Howarth's mighty game at Wembley must have encouraged England, but so far in his international career Matt Perry has cut the opposition without succeeding in lacerating them. In the modern game the intrusions from full-back and the ability of the last line of defence to become the most prominent member of the attack, especially from deep positions, is a vital part of a team's armoury. Even on such an off-day as he experienced last Saturday Percy Montgomery cut a few very pleasing dashes into the heart of the Welsh defence.

It is unlikely that the Springboks will ever again allow themselves to be suckered into the midfield confusion of Wembley. Seldom in international rugby has there been such space for the wings and the fullbacks to frolic, and all three, Gareth Thomas, Dafydd James and Howarth, made the most of it. If Jeremy Guscott and Will Greenwood are given half that opportunity then England, like Wales, will prosper. The Springboks have moved quickly to repair the damage, however, and Franco Smith, despite his value as a goal-kicker, has paid the price for his inadequacies as an international-class centre.

Of the many lessons to be learnt and points to be made last Saturday, the one which stood above the rest was the primacy of the international game and the need to channel every effort and resource into the production of the best possible national side. What we saw at Wembley was the real thing. No matter what your sporting preference, this was a compelling spectacle combining the most entertaining elements of the new age with the dourly competitive confrontations of the old. Nothing will more surely or more quickly return the lost flock to the terraces in Wales than the national side playing the kind of rugby which was both a joy and a privilege to watch last weekend.