Rugby Union: England's new style means Back's time has finally come

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The Independent Online
The announcement of England's team to play New Zealand was delayed by the coach, Clive Woodward, quite rightly so. But it was too late for me to comment on last week. Both Woodward and the England manager, Roger Uttley, are fond of saying that it is easy to be wise after the event and that hindsight is always perfect. This is not entirely fair to us observers. Sometimes I was right at the time, sometimes wrong.

After Woodward had announced his team, I was almost certainly wrong. I should have chosen Tim Stimpson at full-back, John Bentley and Adedayo Adebayo on the wings, Nick Greenstock at outside-centre and Matt Dawson at scrum-half.

Among the forwards, Mark Regan would have come in as hooker and someone else - I was not sure precisely who, but someone - instead of Darren Garforth at tight head.

Admittedly three of my selections, Stimpson, Dawson and Regan, put in an appearance among Saturday's heroes, arriving from the substitutes' bench. It may be, for one can never be certain about these things, that my selection would just have contrived to beat the All Blacks. Somehow I doubt it.

My hypothetical discards all had tremendous matches. Certainly the backs did. Matt Perry saved at least one try. Phil de Glanville did everything that was asked of him. Kyran Bracken's quickly-tapped penalties caused the New Zealand disintegration in the first half. Rees and Austin Healey turned out to be the sharpest pair of wings England have produced in years.

There is an English tradition of having an illusive wing such as Peter Jackson or the underestimated Dickie Guest on the right and a more direct customer such as Peter Thompson or Rory Underwood on the left. In the present England team the sides have been reversed, with the more fundamentalist Rees on the right (where he prefers to be, having played previously for England on the left).

The question is: where is Healey now going to play in the Leicester side? He switched from wing to scrum-half when he was at Orrell in the 1995- 96 season. He came to Leicester as a scrum-half to replace Aadel Kardooni, who is now with Bedford.

Leicester's Director of Rugby, Bob Dwyer, has recently played Healey in his old position, with the Fijian Waisele Serevi, normally an illusive outside-half, at scrum-half. From Serevi's point of view - and from Dwyer's as well - this experiment did not prove an unqualified success when Leicester met Bath at Welford Road earlier in the season. Does anyone, by the way, still remember club matches after the last four weeks?

Dwyer must surely be inclined to restore Healey to the position he was hired to fill. But this is not in England's interest. It is certainly not in Healey's. There is no one more likely to win fewer caps then he deserves than the versatile player. Usually the player who suffers for this reason is someone who can switch between lock, No 6 and No 8. It is rare in the modern game to find a wing who can play scrum-half, and vice-versa.

But international backs have to specialise. They must be familiar with those lines of running and angles of attack about which we hear so much these days. Does Woodward, himself a former Leicester player, now politely ask Dwyer to pick Healey as a wing? And, if he does, what does Dwyer say to Woodward? I leave it at that.

In the back row my selection would have been the same as Woodward's. There is no hindsight on my part there. This maybe hard on Tony Diprose, Chris Sheasby and Tim Rodber, and on the forgotten Ben Clarke too, but Woodward has now put together one of the fastest trios in the world.

The difference between his regime and those of his two predecessors, Jack Rowell and Geoff Cooke, is that, while they would field whenever possible a back row consisting entirely of No 8's, he has chosen one of No 7s for Lawrence Dallaglio has often played in this position for Wasps. Woodward has done this without any substantial sacrifice of size. Both Richard Hill and Dallaglio are solid citizens, tall for their age as well.

I am particularly delighted by the success of Neil Back. He will give encouragement to thousands of schoolboys who are not going to reach six feet but whose natural position is open-side flanker. And he has met so many setbacks in his career that it is pleasant to see him prospering at last.

His success has been the consequence of the change in England's style. This depends on keeping the ball in the hand and refusing to commit too many forwards to the breakdown. Styles can alter. Fashions may change. Luckily for Back, he has in rugby terms lived long enough to see his hour come at last. I am glad about this, even though I still think he got off far too lightly for jostling the referee as he did after Bath's win over Leicester in the 1996 Pilkington Cup.