Rugby Union: England's eclipse of the sums

Simon Turnbull finds the numbers are adding up to a record-breaking side
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The Independent Online
Four weeks ago Jack Rowell was preparing to lead England into the Five Nations' Championship with not so much a chip on his shoulder as a dagger between the shoulder blades. When Geoff Cooke was asked by the Western Mail to assess England's seasonal prospects, he might have warned the man who succeeded him as overlord of the national XV to beware the ides of March, which this year happens to fall on the very day the team that Jack rebuilt end their campaign at the Arms Park. Instead, Cooke, now punching his weight in the Frank Warren corner at Bedford, went straight for his scabbard.

"The biggest problem for England is that the rhetoric off the field has not been matched by performances on it," he said. "If Jack had shut up and not talked his mumbo jumbo about inter- active rugby and expansive rugby it would not have created all this weight of expectation. I felt Jack was the man for the job when I left, but it's not working."

England's half-term report would seem to suggest the Rowell regime is not only working now but, according to the statistical evidence, working better than the Cooke recipe for success. Without doubt, the hardest half of the new England's Grand Slam quest still lies ahead, starting with France at Twickenham on Saturday. But, having scored 10 tries (the first albeit thanks to Paddy O'Brian, the New Zealander who refereed the Calcutta Cup) Rowell's class of '97 are on course to eclipse Cooke's of '92.

The back-to-back Grand Slam was secured five years ago with 15 tries, England's biggest Five Nations haul since 1924, the last time they celebrated successive Slams. Wavell Wakefield's team crossed the opposition line 17 times and in the passage of 73 years England have finished the championship with more than 10 tries on only three occasions: in 1953 (11), in 1990 (12) and in 1992. The English all-time record of 20 tries, which dates back to 1914, may be out of reach but 15 is a realistic target - and one that would doubtless give Rowell and his backroom team particular satisfaction.

Not that you will find a semblance of chicken counting in the Rowell camp in advance of the cockerel invasion. "The 10 tries mean nothing at 3pm on Saturday," Les Cusworth, England's backs coach, said. "We have not thought about records at all. The important thing in our next game is that we win. It will be very difficult against the French. They're a powerful, skilful side. They have a big pack and play with a lot of composure."

Such pragmatism is not merely standard one-game-at-a-time management mantra. The French, even at fortress Twickenham, and the Welsh in Cardiff will be different propositions from a team beaten by Italy last month and another that came within a scuffed clearance of being held at home by the Azzurri in December. Nevertheless, England's half-way harvest of tries is a veritable feast compared with the anorexic three that proved sufficient to win the championship last season.

Many have pointed to the late flourishes which yielded record victories in the first two games (three tries in the last 13 minutes against Scotland, five in the closing quarter of an hour against Ireland) as evidence of a deliberate policy. "It's great to see international games being won like that," Andy Robinson, the Bath coach and graduate of Rowell's Recreation Ground academy, said. "It's the traditional Bath way: soften up the opposition and then cut loose with the backs in the final quarter."

Many more have gone further and criticised England for not playing the inter-active, expansive mumbo-jumbo stuff from the start. Phil Matthews, sat alongside Nigel Starmer-Smith in the BBC commentary box, said when Tony Underwood ran in try number five at Lansdowne Road: "England really should have been opening up this game much earlier on. If they're going to compete with the likes of South Africa and new Zealand and South Africa this is the type of game they need to play."

Cusworth cringed when he heard the comments of the former Ireland captain. "International rugby is not about opening up for 80 minutes," he said. "It's all about pressure and about how two sides play. You have to break down defences and you have to defend. What pleased us as much as anything in Dublin was giving no tries away. You have to have a big defence. That is the essential thing.

"Once you've got it you can look to build on the platform but you have to take each ball you win on its merits. That's what we tell Andy Gomarsall and Paul Grayson: if it's good ball, use it.

"You have to play by options, depending on what ball you get, not to pre-set plans. When people make comments like we should be opening up from the start, I just wonder what planet they're on."

Planet Utopia, in the rugby firmament at least, still lies somewhere south of the equator. But if England keep succeeding by trying, trying and trying again even Geoff Cooke might be over the moon by the ides of March.

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