Rugby Union: England must go to Back for the future: Chris Rea believes that the national selectors need a more forward-thinking strategy if the All Blacks are to be beaten

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The Independent Online
NOTHING COULD more graphically illustrate the problems confronting the game than the sight of the secretary of the Rugby Football Union, an administrator of outstanding virtue and a man not easily moved to vandalism, tearing sponsors' logos from the wall at the official reception to welcome the All Blacks last week. Here was Canute, no longer prepared to sit on the shore, getting off his backside and wading in to stem the flow of commercialism. He won the point but ultimately the game, set and match will be lost.

Steinlager could not have bought the publicity they have received from Dudley Wood's outraged response and although the sponsors, whether by accident or design, were the guilty party in the affair, the incident merely served to highlight the confusion and subterfuge which are so deeply divisive.

Showing commendable restraint, the All Blacks backed off from this ruckus in a way their opponents cannot expect in the weeks ahead. Sean Fitzpatrick's suggestion that his criticism of the Lions for their negative play in the Test series should really be interpreted as a compliment was one of the most masterly U-turns ever negotiated. A distinguished career in politics awaits him.

Not that Fitzpatrick had any need to retract his views; at no stage during the Test series were the Lions backs as consistently threatening as they had been in the early part of the tour. It was one of the late Carwyn James's chief regrets that when the All Blacks were at their most vulnerable in the fourth and final Test of the 1971 series, the Lions missed the opportunity to finish them off in the grand manner, and it required a miraculous 50-yard drop goal by J P R Williams to draw the match and win the series. That day, one of the finest back divisions ever fielded by the Lions were laid off in attack, their brief being to prevent the opposition from scoring. But had James given them free reign, the All Blacks could have been routed.

It is a lesson that both England and Scotland should heed. The Scots, with their already sparse resources further ravaged by injury and the absence of Gary Armstrong, will have fewer options open to them than England.

England have the quality players - all they need to do is to select the right ones in the right positions and choose the right game for them to play. Easy? Not on the evidence of last season when they failed on all counts. England have a glittering back division, the centrepiece of which is Jeremy Guscott. And Rory Underwood's try in the Calcutta Cup match last season was an all- too-brief example of the devastation England's forwards can cause. But not since the 1992 Five Nations campaign, when England, having graduated from the method school of rugby, played with zest and spontaneity, have the backs justified the extravagant claims made on their behalf.

The fault is not theirs but lies with England's policymakers. Their overall strategy last season was hard to follow and the very fact that the selection of Rory Jenkins for London excited so much interest suggests a degree of confusion among the media which would be more ominous still were it to be shared by the national selectors.

If the notion that England have a clearly defined route to international selection (through the divisions and the national squad) is to have any credibility at all, then Jenkins cannot be considered ahead of players like Neil Back, Tim Rodber and Steve Ojomoh, who have patiently trekked that route.

And if Back is to succeed Peter Winterbottom, and Victor Ubogu is to replace Jeff Probyn, then England will have to give thought to reshaping their back row and half-backs.

The sight of Dean Richards being so comprehensively outflanked by Ubogu in the divisional match at Bath last week should have been a sharp reminder to Geoff Cooke that the Lions back row in New Zealand, despite conspicuous success at close quarters, were much less effective when the opposition gave more width to their attacks. Without Grant Fox the present All Blacks seem certain to explore similar avenues. This might persuade England's selectors to accommodate both Back and Rodber, the latter at No 8, with Ben Clarke, assuming he is fit, on the blindside. Clarke could then operate at the tail of the line- out on the All Blacks' throw.

Alternatively, if England's expectation is to be built on forward domination, then Probyn, still the master technician at tight head, and Richards, the very heart and soul of their defence, must be at Twickenham. A narrow game, if it produces even the tightest of victories, will be enough for England. The backs would just have to wait for another day.

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