Rugby Union: England must tie loose ends: A Test of strength is promised as the all-conquering All Blacks prepare to march on Twickenham: Chris Rea says the reliance on bulky forwards is a backward step

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The Independent Online
IF EVER there was a chilling vision into the future state of English rugby, it was the under- 21 international between England and Ireland at Gateshead. It was the curtain-raiser to the England A match against the All Blacks, and the longer the game went on, the more fervently one wished that the curtain had stayed down.

England's game plan, if that is not too pretentious a term for something so prosaic, revolved around Lawrence Dallaglio, whose charges into the opposition defence uprooted the green shoots of Irish recovery. Dallaglio was all over the place - up front with the family in the pack and, almost in the same instant, behind with the guests in the backs, who were clearly not welcome because for most of the time they were ignored.

Truth to tell, there were as many forwards lined up in the back division as there were backs, and what little back play there was, given that a skill as basic as running straight seemed beyond the scope of most, made one yearn for the ball to be with the forwards again. England's game that day lacked wit, grace and invention, a monument - although one prays not a permanent one - to the flat earthists who have worked for the past 20 years turning wine into water. Mercifully, Jeremy Guscott, that most free of spirits, has resisted, but there are ominous signs that Will Carling may not have been released from the shackles which held him last season.

The injury doubts over Guscott, and Phil de Glanvilie's misfortune, have demonstrated how bare the cupboard is without them, a sad commentary on a country so rich in natural resources. Given this impoverishment and the fact that no English side confronting the All Blacks on this tour has attempted as much as a concerted attack behind the scrum, let alone surrendered strategic command to the backs, it comes as something of a surprise to hear reckless talk that England intend playing a fluid game at Twickenham next Saturday.

Gratifying as it would be to see Carling, Guscott and the Underwoods flowing through the All Blacks, the odds are against it, especially if the execution of the plan is as half- baked as the one which came to grief in the World Cup final against Australia. For the plan to succeed, England would need too many factors in their favour. A lot of set-piece possession for a start, although this is not beyond them. The selection of Tim Rodber and Ben Clarke in the back row has reinforced the line-out tail. And, with the exception of the game at Gateshead, New Zealand's line-out in the weekend matches has been over-reliant on Ian Jones. Despite the doubts over Victor Ubogu, England will also have a competitive scrummage. The set piece is not the problem for England.

Defensively, the tourists are a miserly bunch. This may have something to do with the attacking shortcomings of their opponents, but it is a tribute to the All Blacks' organisation and understanding. Houdini would have been hard pressed to escape their clutches in the set piece, which is why the decisive battle at Twickenham will be fought in the loose. Nowadays, back-row forwards are expected to be big, fast, agile athletes with a footballer's brain and coordination. At his peak, Michael Jones embodied all these, and the nearest to him in English rugby is Clarke. But Clarke cannot be expected to do it all.

He may be big, fast, strong and athletic - and so is Rodber - but who will do the foraging, the burrowing and the beavering at the point of breakdown? And who is there with a centre of gravity low enough and hands fast enough to recycle the ball for the backs? Ubogu is one, and in the absence of Neil Back, the only one in the pack with the dexterity to do it, but he will be among the last to arrive at the breakdown, by which time it may be too late.

Back could not have done more to impress the selectors since the All Blacks arrived. He had a magnificent match for the Midlands at Leicester, and, even in the malaise of a disjointed game at Gateshead, proved himself a formidable competitor, but his chances of winning a first cap against New Zealand were blown when it was discovered that Martin Bayfield would not be fit. Andy Blackmore's experiences at Redruth sealed Back's fate; nevertheless, his omission is a grave error, the more so now that the All Blacks seem equally beguiled by the fashion of playing three vertically unchallenged loose forwards. Where will it all end? In helmets and harnesses, I shouldn't wonder.

The decision to sacrifice nimbleness for bulk is more seriously at odds with the selectors' putative commitment to a running game than the preference of Rob Andrew over Stuart Barnes at fly-half. Barnes was unfit at Gateshead and Andrew was out of sorts when London capitulated. But Andrew, like Barnes, is only as good as the possession he receives. He is certainly much too responsible to offload poor- quality ball to three-quarters vulnerable to the All Blacks' tackles. It is not Andrew but English rugby which has broken more good backs than the Spanish Inquisition. No, England should, and probably will, keep faith with the game which has served them well enough in recent times. Their selection leaves them little choice.

(Photograph omitted)

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