Rugby Union: England's final feast leaves nasty taste

England 92 Premiership All-Stars 17
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IF IT is a noble thing to do one's bit for one's country, it is nobler still to do it for someone else's, as Niall Woods and Alistair Murdoch did at Twickenham, that quintessentially English rugby fortress, on Saturday night. The problem arises when one finds one's bits falling from one's body in the process. Woods, an Irishman, is unlikely to play again this season after damaging a cruciate ligament in his knee, while Murdoch, an Australian, broke his collar-bone and will be lucky to reappear before Christmas. The next time England need some pre-World Cup cannon fodder to blast out of the trenches, volunteers may be very thin on the ground.

Woods and Murdoch were not the only casualties of a meaningless slaughter at sundown, far from it. Mark Regan, of Bath, began the game revelling in the embarrassed discomfort of his great front-row rival Richard Cockerill, but ended it in agony when his ribcage blew a gasket at a scrum shortly before the interval. Tony Diprose, a proud leader in adversity and the scorer of the opening try, wrenched his right shoulder and was gone inside half an hour. Twickenham? They should have played it on a First World War battlefield.

Martin Johnson, the England captain, was suitably sympathetic afterwards. "I feel for those guys," he said. "They gave up their time to come here and play and they got hurt. Cruciate ligament for Niall, you say? Oh, that's awful." Very nearly as awful was the fact that no England player saw fit to clap Woods from the field as he was stretchered away into some whitewashed treatment room deep in the bowels of a stadium less than quarter full. If that is one of the values professionalism has brought to the game, rugby can go hang itself.

Pray God the Rugby Football Union draws the correct conclusions from this wretched affair. With its rucks and mauls and mass aggression, the union game is plenty dangerous enough when both sides are properly prepared and sufficiently cohesive to afford safety in numbers.

The Premiership All-Stars were about as united as Old Labour. They met up on Thursday afternoon, used a brief training session to run off the bruises of the previous weekend's club business, and then spent Friday at Newbury races. Zinzan Brooke, who side-stepped active participation in favour of a coaching role that posed rather less of a threat to life and limb, could not even remember the names of his players at the after- match press conference.

It was Brooke's fellow All Black and back-room partner at Harlequins, John Gallagher, who hit the button. "I had to stay quiet before the game because to have done otherwise would have undermined the guys in the squad, but for players to be asked one week into the season to front up against one of the favourites for the World Cup... well, that's a tough call, isn't it? England were pretty awesome up to half-time and I'm just relieved they went off the boil. I was delighted with our line-out and we scrummed pretty well, but we just ran out of bodies when England got to fifth and sixth phase."

Too true they ran out of bodies; there were eight All-Star replacements on the field before the second half kicked off. One of them, the Bristol- bound Australian centre Craig McMullen, found himself in the bizarre position of being lauded as a Premiership All-Star without having once played in the Premiership - or in any other form of English rugby, come to that. The entire venture was a cock-up from start to finish and cock-ups leave a nasty mess, as disadvantaged club coaches like Dick Best, Andy Robinson and Paul Turner will no doubt confirm as they embark on their casualty count today.

Of course, Clive Woodward could afford to view Saturday's events from a loftier perspective. The national coach positively revelled in the sight of Lawrence Dallaglio continuing his breathtaking yomp across the highest peaks of the loose forward's art, of Phil de Glanville turning in another deeply resourceful performance at inside centre, and of the human metronome, Jonny Wilkinson, kicking 13 goals from 14 attempts. Most importantly of all, he was able to count his side out for their final World Cup dress rehearsal and, with one fairly predictable exception, count them all back in.

The exception, of course, was David Rees, that physiotherapist's dream from Manchester way. Rees entered the fray at half-time, scored a try within 90 seconds and bowed back out again after 18 minutes. "I very much wanted to see him perform out there," said Woodward of his favourite wing, "but he felt his groin [so to speak] and we brought him off as a precaution." Fortunately for the coach, a new favourite has emerged in the equally diminutive but far more resilient shape of Austin Healey. So much of England's attacking philosophy is now based around Healey's free-range, multi-skilled unorthodoxy that even a super-fit Rees might struggle to make the starting line-up.

"Outside of Jeff Wilson in New Zealand, I don't think there's a wing in the world who can play Austin's kind of game," purred Woodward. "Were we to lose him, I think our approach would have to change quite radically." Healey's versatility was much in evidence during a first half in which England registered seven tries and 50 points - there was not a single area of the All-Stars' soft underbelly he failed to penetrate - and was underlined in triplicate after the break when he covered for the absent Dawson at scrum-half.

It was, however, a night of mixed fortunes for the lippier members of the squad. If Healey was bang on the money, the comparably loquacious Richard Cockerill had to suffer in silence as Regan, his bete noir, revelled in a horribly misdirected line-out throw that gifted Diprose five laughably soft points on four minutes. Cockerill too often resembles Eric Morecambe rather than Eric Bristow, and there is not much of the Lakeside Country Club about Phil Greening, either. Their imprecision could prove very costly indeed when England start playing proper teams in 12 days' time.

England: Tries Luger 3, Catt 2, Perry, De Glanville, Healey, Dallaglio, Rees, Back, Corry, Cockerill; Conversions Wilkinson 12; Penalty Wilkinson. Premiership All-Stars; Tries Diprose, Keyter, McMullen; Conversion Lacroix.

ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); A Healey (Leicester), W Greenwood (Leicester), P De Glanville (Bath), D Luger (Saracens); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), D Grewcock (Saracens), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps), N Back (Leicester).

Replacements: D Rees (Bristol) for Dawson, h-t; D Garforth (Leicester) for Vickery, h-t; M Catt (Bath) for Rees, 58; M Corry (Leicester) for Back, 72.

PREMIERSHIP ALL-STARS: L Nabaro (Bristol); J Keyter (Harlequins), A Murdoch (Bedford), R Eriksson (Bedford), N Woods (London Irish); T Lacroix (Saracens), K Putt (London Irish); D Barnes (Harlequins), M Regan (Bath), J White (Saracens), W Waugh (Bath), G Morgan (Harlequins), B Sturnham (Bath), A Diprose (Saracens, capt), R Jenkins (Harlequins).

Replacements: P Ogilvie (Saracens) for Diprose, 28; B Daniel (Harlequins) for Nabaro, 31; A Long (Bath) for Regan, 39; B Whetstone (London Irish) for Woods, 40; C McMullen (Bristol) for Murdoch, h-t; S Vile (Bristol) for Lacroix, h-t; A Gomarsall (Bedford) for Putt, h-t; R Strudwick (London Irish) for Morgan, h-t.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).