Rugby Union: Fight fans go without

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The Independent Online
MOST followers of rugby, if they are honest, will admit that they operate a double standard. They are not for that reason hypocrites. They can be simultaneously excited by two different aspects of the game, the poetic and the brutal.

They delight in audacious play, flowing movements - the Barbarians and New Zealand in 1973, Philippe Saint-Andre's previous try at Twickenham, which also came from one of Didier Camberabero's kicks.

But at the same time they enjoy a punch-up, of which last season's encounter between France and England provided more than one collector's item. Some people went to Twickenham on Saturday hoping for a classic, but more expected a brawl. In the event, the encounter was neither, but a good game played at great speed in defiance of the weather. A strong wind is the enemy of rugby, and a strong, swirling wind is the greatest enemy of all.

Jean-Baptiste Lafond was the only back who had the measure of it. His technique was to wait until the last minute before committing himself, like a great batsman playing a leg-break bowler.

Jonathan Webb came to terms with the conditions after his unhappy early experiences, and in so doing showed his character. Many international full-backs of the highest class would have disintegrated after conceding 12 points in virtually as many minutes. If Gavin Hastings is now restored to his position as the Lions' first choice, it is only because his performance on Saturday (which I saw on television) was so impressive.

There is, however, one episode involving Webb which still puzzles me slightly. Not long into the second half England looked certain to score from a simple threequarter move. Webb came into the line and made ground. He passed to the previous try- scorer, Ian Hunter, coming in on the left, who was promptly submerged. The explanation is, I suppose, that the French defence got across with remarkable speed. Still, England should have scored.

Altogether, the match was a triumph for Jeff Tordo, who is clearly a reformed character; for what Pierre Berbizier likes to call le fair play Britannique: and, above all, for the referee, Jim Fleming, he interpreted the new laws strictly but fairly.

It is arguable that Fleming interpreted the law about the emerging ball too strictly. He did not always allow any time at all for it to come out. England's lumpen supporters, however, did not seem to understand this law, thinking that the put-in had still to be awarded to the advancing side. Several Welsh supporters were cheerful after the match, having seen England play, they thought that Wales could beat them at Cardiff.

The suspension of Garin Jenkins after his sending-off against Llanelli on Friday does not seem to have depressed too many people. The Australians thought that his probable replacement, Nigel Meek, was the better hooker. I should be happier still - though this change is unlikely to come about - if he were to be joined by his Pontypool colleague Lyndon Mustoe at tight head. Wales would then have a new and, in my opinion, superior front row of Ricky Evans, Meek and Mustoe.

The backs present greater problems. Alan Davies, the Wales coach, no doubt deserves the praise that has been heaped upon him. But the fact is that, with less than three weeks to go to a major international, Wales still do not have a settled outside-half, and only three backs who are certain selections. For myself, I hope that Davies can fit in both Mike Rayer (who had two excellent representative games before Christmas) and Tony Clement.

Nor should Mark Ring be forgotten, even though he has formally announced his retirement from international rugby. He had a wretched World Cup because he was still injured and should not have been playing. But he is now re-establishing himself with Pontypool, and he is actually a year younger than Lafond, Camberabero, Philippe Sella and Franck Mesnel.

They all had good matches on Saturday - Lafond a superb one. That may be the fallacy in the Welsh argument. It was not so much that England played badly as that France played much better than most of the commentators expected them to do. I, for one, was not surprised.

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