Rugby Union: English realism needed over Barnes

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The Independent Online
LONG before the final act of Stuart Barnes's tour de force last Saturday, England's management must have known that they would cop it from those blessed with the infallibility of hindsight. Had the selectors rolled out The Barrel earlier then, we are led to believe, England would have won two more Grand Slams and the World Cup. Balderdash.

What has been conveniently forgotten amidst the euphoria of a victory which, apart from the three joyous tries and a few isolated moments of exhilaration, was a thoroughly mediocre match, is that in the past few seasons England have scored some glorious tries. Furthermore, they gave in Paris three years ago what I still consider to be one of the finest team performances I have ever seen.

No one would deny that Barnes had a marvellous match and only the most curmudgeonly would begrudge him his hour and a half upon the stage which has been denied him so long. The game needs more players like Barnes and now we will undoubtedly be seeing him more often at the higher levels. But Barnes would be the first to admit that everything went right for him on the day. Even Dewi Morris's lofted pass which ignited the move leading to Rory Underwood's unforgettable try, worked to his advantage.

To suggest that most fly-halves in that position would have kicked to touch displays a singular lack of understanding of the situation. With Iain Morrison, the Scottish flanker, primed to knock every last breath of wind from Barnes's sails and irreversibly locked onto his target, Barnes did what most alert and agile fly-halves would have done in the circumstances. The only difference was that few could have matched his blistering acceleration through the gap nor could they, at such pace, deliver a pass of such withering accuracy to Jeremy Guscott.

As an almost accidental by- product of the matches at Twickenham and at Cardiff last Saturday, we were witness to what has so far been the most effective method of easing the midfield congestion which has so perplexed the majority of players and coaches in this country. But by taking on opposing back rows so close to the set piece both Barnes and the new Irish out-half, Eric Elwood, created gaps further out and, in the build-up to Ireland's try, Elwood committed no fewer than three Welsh defenders.

It is a development which has clearly left the Welsh selectors unmoved. Neil Jenkins remains in the side to play France next Saturday for his kicking not his running, and Robert Jones - who has, one hopes, retained the respect and admiration of the Lions selectors - has been made to suffer for the inadequacies of his forwards. Despite the changes, the Welsh forwards could be overwhelmed by the power and pace of the French pack.

Ireland's armed resistance at the Arms Park took Wales by surprise and came as a mighty relief to the hard-pressed Irish selectors. But just as one defeat in Cardiff didn't turn England into paupers overnight so one victory on the same ground hasn't transformed the Irish into princes. They still have grave problems in matters of fitness, organisation and in the overall quality of their back play which has so far failed to measure up to the effort and commitment put in by their forwards.

For England the reverse applies. Their tendency this season to clear out of the kitchen just when they have turned up the heat has already cost them a Grand Slam and, after their unproductive first quarter at Twickenham last Saturday, in all probability a championship as well. Four of their forwards will, almost certainly, be at the end of their distinguished international careers when this season is over and judging just how far they have slipped from the summit is currently a matter for discussion within the England camp, although it is certain to be a topic of much fiercer debate when the Lions selectors make their final decisions today week.

As always the chosen few will be taken for their evident virtues rather than their obvious faults and this, of course, applies to the Lions captaincy. The case for Gavin Hastings was hardly advanced by his inability to imbue his players with a renewed sense of purpose and direction after the departure of the injured Craig Chalmers. The argument that the captaincy should be Will Carling's if he wants it, is a powerful one given that he is the most successful captain in England's history. Personally, and I hope he will forgive me, I have never believed that captaincy has sat easily on Carling's shoulders. He is a magnificent player, extravagantly endowed with speed, strength and enough natural ability to play fly- half or full-back at international level.

Throughout his international career, however, he has had to carry the burden of captaincy. He has been denied the freedom to indulge himself single-mindedly in his own game. He may therefore even welcome the opportunity to join the pack of Lions in New Zealand rather than lead them.

Carling has another opportunity to press his claim at Lansdowne Road next Saturday where, like Parc des Princes, the championship is at stake. But at both venues the question as to the eventual winner is not who, but by how much.

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