Rugby Union: England's prime cuts are on the rare side

David Llewellyn runs the rule over Clive Woodward's young pretenders
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE end-of-term report has to read: Could do better. A lot better. It was not just yesterday either, when so much seemed to come to nothing. Had it not been for the likes of Neil Back, Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, then there would not have been much meat left on the bones for coach Clive Woodward to chew over.

To be fair the conditions were anything but ideal. The blustery wind must have been the very devil to play with or against. But it was still a victory. Three wins out of eight and a couple of draws have left Woodward in the black.

He was upbeat about it all. "I feel very buoyant about the progress we have made," he said after the 35-17 win at Twickenham over Ireland. "And I am happy about where we are going. It is a settled squad and we are all comfortable with other, players, coaches and back-up team. And we can now test ourselves against the Southern Hemisphere this summer."

It has been a testing season north of the equator. English beef had gone from a Southern Hemisphere barbecue before Christmas into a French oven in the New Year where it received a rare old roasting. At least they finally lit the fires to lift the Triple Crown.

A closer inspection of things might indicate that the front row is probably not where Woodward would like it to be. Some of that meat up front was raw, the hooker Andy Long was left looking a trifle underdone and the prop Will Green clearly found Test rugby - well, testing. Phil Vickery has the potential and for all of them it can only be a matter of time.

Other tougher slabs of meat such as Jason Leonard and Johnson were looking all chewed up early on, after a hard British Lions tour, but they still came through and Johnson finished the Five Nations on a high note.

There were also some prime cuts on display during the eight matches, notably in the back five, where the captaincy did little to hinder Dallaglio's world-class showings. At lock Garath Archer has been superb at the line- out and ruck, and fast in the loose. Behind him Tony Diprose displayed some delicate touches with his superior ball handling as well as revealing a harder streak than had been apparent earlier. Alongside him Back's handling and fine reading of a game showed him up as an outstanding all-rounder.

There may not be many obvious candidates knocking at the door of No 10 but the fly-half Paul Grayson has been a revelation. Standing flatter and using his genuine speed off the mark and excellent footballing brain in a lethal combination he troubled everyone and grew in stature as the season progressed.

Will Greenwood brought an old-fashioned but worthy virtue into the centre. While being in possession of all the qualities of the modern-day player in attack or defence, he also backs himself to retain the ball in the tackle to make it available for the support, therefore he is able to commit his opposite number to the tackle, taking out one of the elements of the defence.

Matt Perry came of age at fullback. He was one of eight new caps used in Woodward's first season in charge and showed a high level of skill and attacking flair. This is turning into one band of beef on the bone that it will eventually prove impossible to keep out.