Rugby Union: England's heroic forward march

Twelve months after Scotland had broken the hearts of the auld enemy at Murrayfield, 25-year-old Will Carling finally led his country to the Grand Slam. Steve Bale reported on the momentous 21-19 win over France at Twickenham that completed a triumph for professionalism in an amateur code
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The Independent Online
Grand achievements take a while to sink in and if there is surprise from some who know no better that the English mood after the greatest day of their rugby lives is exhaustion rather than ecstasy, they should refer to past winners. They will tell you it takes hindsight to appreciate how precious Grand Slams are.

The numbness of sheer relief is well remembered by Phil Bennett from 1978 and Jim Aitken from 1984 - captains whose Welsh and Scottish teams beat the French on previous winner-takes-all occasions. Now it is Will Carling's moment to savour the chance to lie back at last and while he relaxes think of anything but England.

He will not have long. In this World Cup year the demand on players is more persistent than it has ever been, and if England were to lose on tour in Fiji and Australia in four months, their first Grand Slam, Triple Crown and Five Nations title since 1980, and only the third since the war, would become instant history.

This is not being churlish, merely as realistic as the England players need to be as the rest of the most momentous year they will ever experience stretches ahead. Consider the fate of the Welsh team who won the Triple Crown in 1988 - from champions to also-rans in the space of two thumpings by the All Blacks - and you realise the transience of success.

Which is not to say the culmination of almost four years' work since England's ignominious retreat from the last World Cup is not worth the loudest celebration. Over the past two months, we have witnessed a heroic effort by one of the most durable and efficient packs assembled in international rugby to squeeze most of the life out of all their opponents.

If this has not led to total asphyxiation - and the opportunity to turn forward pressure into a threequarter runabout like the Welsh often managed in the 1970s - it has been mainly because of the stubbornness of the opposition, even of the now embattled Welsh. England correctly saw that the main chance lay in their forwards and seized it.

Given the attacking propensity of their backs - as revealed in last season's narrow miss - they could fairly be accused of tunnel vision. But equally, in fact, more importantly, they have shown a single-mindedness which has brooked no diversion and we should applaud them for it. Great teams, the All Blacks included, worry about entertaining only when it suits them.

That said, in Saturday's absorbing events before an impassioned audience. England got the ball moving more often than they had in the three previous championship matches put together. Ultimately, though, as the rain poured down in the second half, conditions dictated that they revert to type and grind out their victory in familiar attritional fashion.

Again, this is an observation, not a complaint. France scored three tries, the first one of the most beautiful and breathtaking Twickenham has seen, to one, but this statistic and the eventual narrowness of the margin misrepresent the balance of the match.

The French occasionally dazzled with their sleight of hand and counter- attacking prescience but, under English forward pressure, there was little consistency, organisation or discipline in any of their play at close quarters where England are strongest and steadiest.

The most obvious example of suspect temperament was Xavier Blond's manhandling of the referee after an obvious offside had been compounded by dissent - nothing malicious but the sort of mindlessness that a less kindly official than the admirable Les Peard would have punished with dismissal. In this uncomfortable instant, Blond said everything about French lack of control.

More generally, the failure of discipline entailed penalties which would have taken England beyond reach had Simon Hodgkinson displayed greater accuracy than in landing five successful kicks from 10 attempts. Even so, 14 points took him to 60 in this season's championship and past Jean- Patric Lescarboura's Five Nations record. At this rate, Hodgkinson - 187 points in 13 Tests - will pass Dusty Hare's England record, 240, during the World Cup.

Through its dependence on Hodgkinson's trusty right boot, England's rugby has been unarguably prosaic, this season's five tries comparing unfavourably with last season's 12. But there have been moments of ambition and inspiration, and Rory Underwood's try against France reflected English willingness to open up when the moment was finally considered propitious.

Alas, this was not as often as some would have preferred. The combination of Richards, Teague, Hill, Carling, Andrew, Hodgkinson and Underwood, who dismissively accelerated round the outside of Jean-Baptiste Lafond, was a small piece of perfection they never quite repeated.

In contrast, France had to rely on tries because they so seldom established attacking positions. Philippe Saint-Andre's, completing a length-of-the- field move instigated when Serge Blanco ran a failed Hodgkinson penalty kick behind his own posts, came from off-the-cuff rugby which was necessary as well as sublime.

But in its spectacular way, it also betokened the wider failure of the French forwards to get to grips with England in either tight or loose. In his championship au revoir, Blanco, a shadow of the player who had tantalised the Welsh a fortnight earlier, was mostly ineffective for the telling reason that he scarcely ever had the space in which to do anything positive not also born of desperation.

That first try, Philippe Sella creating room for Didier Camberabero and the stand-off gathering his own chip before a visionary cross-kick to Saint Andre, was followed by a second by Camberabero, capitalising on Carling's failure to secure a high ball, and a third in which Franck Mesnel escaped Richard Hill over the same bit of turf where Underwood had previously beaten Lafond.

Other than in giving England a fright, it did not really matter. Nor did the try disparity bother Carling in the least. "It would take a far more eloquent person than me to put into words what we feel," the captain said. He did not need to: in its uncomplicated way, England's Grand Slam did the talking for him.

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