Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: Consolation for all as progress takes root: Trophy goes to Wales although England carry the day while both look towards the next World Cup

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England. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .15

Wales . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8

THE WAY England tell it, but for one dubious refereeing decision - the one which cost them the penalty which cost them the game with Ireland - they would now be celebrating their third Grand Slam in four seasons. There is no sense of cruel frustration, however, not with the greater glory of a World Cup awiting them.

Even the trumping of Wales' own Slam pretensions was almost a dazzling performance rather than the real thing. Nearly but not quite. For a team self-admittedly in transition and with a way to go, to have basked in the glow of such tangible achievement would have been self- defeating. Geoff Cooke himself says so.

For now, it is enough that there is progress to report at the end of a harshly criticised campaign. This in fact suits England, the new of Jack Rowell even more than the old of Cooke, just fine. They have all along taken the dangerous course of subordinating the 1994 Five Nations to - one might almost say sacrificing it on the altar of - the 1995 World Cup. Put in that context, they are exactly on the course Cooke had plotted for them as manager before his untimely decision to retire.

So Wales won the Five Nations' Trophy. So what? The Welsh themselves were scarcely shouting about it. Far more important was that solid improvement had been achieved over the course of an enervating couple of months, that Wales are a credible rugby force again, and that their own, rather different World Cup commitments beginning in Iberia in May promise infinitely better than could have been imagined only four months ago when Canada were beating them.

It may seem ludicrous that games in Portugal and Spain should outweigh the 100th England-Wales match, but there you are: for Wales this visit to Twickenham, momentous as it may have seemed at the time, was but a preparation. That they will go as champions is an optional extra that would be rendered utterly meaningless in the unlikely - dare one say impossible? - event of a mishap in Madrid.

Champions . . . these days the championship is resolved on scoring-difference if countries finish level, as Wales and England did after each winning three matches. (Before last season the title would have been shared.) England had required to beat Wales by 16 points to come first; they fell short by nine and you never saw a less delighted bunch of champions than the Welsh team when the final whistle sounded.

It was the match itself that mattered but, even so, only a few English arms were raised in salute. Their Welsh counterparts celebrated not at all, though this was their first outright title since 1979, and there was an understandable reluctance about the way they hauled themselves back outside to receive the bauble from the Queen. Having been kept waiting and then seen their long faces, she probably wondered what all the fuss was about, particularly as England declined to reappear as the official timetable said they should have done. It was an oddly flat ending to a game that, when it kicked off, had crackled with tension.

In terms of discipline Wales handled it surprisingly well, the grim exception being the butt aimed at Rob Andrew by Neil Jenkins which cost Wales three penalty points and would have cost them Jenkins as well if the referee, Jim Fleming, had not been unwontedly charitable after seeking a second opinion from his touch-judge.

Their rugby did not stand up so well, either to the atmosphere or critical scrutiny. England may be in transition, young, learning, and all the rest of the explanations that have been made for them this season but, with Dean Richards triumphantly restored, they still possess vastly more experience of this kind of overwhelming occasion.

It showed in the way they hit the ground running to claim the game almost as soon as it had started. A handsome try within 10 minutes, Rory Underwood's 37th for England, was - or ought to have been - a liberation after 437 tryless minutes and the outcome was hardly in doubt from that moment.

Yet, though they ran freer than at any time in the past year, they still contrived to restrict themselves to only one more try, a line-out flop- over by the outstanding Tim Rodber two minutes into the second half and about 90 seconds after a female streaker had fleetingly revealed what running free was all about.

Strange to relate that the retiring Cooke felt the failure to add was very good for England, as if the last thing they wanted was to put on a splendid show now lest the splendour fall before the World Cup. He has a point, but it is still depressing to see Andrew dropping for goal (and missing) when the Welsh defence has been sucked in on the right and quick ball has been delivered with an overlapping threequarter line waiting on the left.

'When the dust settles and we look at the crucial bits of the game we know we could have blown them off the field completely,' Cooke said. 'We've won comfortably, we were hardly threatened - and there are still huge areas of improvement left to us. That's great from our point of view.'

He also repeated his bold assertion that the side he is bequeathing Rowell is potentially better than those of the Grand Slam / World Cup final years of 1991 and '92, but with this proviso: 'It's not the ifs and buts; it's what you actually do that is important. When you become a great side you nail the chances at the pressure points.'

Much the same could be said of Wales, though at Twickenham the life was squeezed out of their forwards so completely that over the game they had very few chances - far, far fewer than England - and did rather well to nail their try when it presented itself to Nigel Walker. By then victory was patently beyond them, though not the spurious consolation prize called the Five Nations' Trophy.

England: Tries R Underwood, Rodber; Conversion Andrew; Penalty Andrew. Wales: Try Walker; Penalty Jenkins.

ENGLAND: I Hunter (Northampton); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), P de Glanville (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), N Redman (Bath), T Rodber (Northampton), D Richards (Leicester), B Clarke (Bath). Replacement: M Catt (Bath) for Andrew, 77.

WALES: M Rayer (Cardiff); I Evans (Llanelli, capt), M Hall (Cardiff), N Davies (Llanelli), N Walker (Cardiff); N Jenkins (Pontypridd), R Moon; R Evans (Llanelli), G Jenkins (Swansea), J Davies (Neath), P Davies (Llanelli), Gareth Llewellyn (Neath), E Lewis, S Quinnell, M Perego (Llanelli). Replacement: A Copsey (Llanelli) for Lewis, 50.

Referee: J Fleming (Scotland).

----------------------------------------------------------------- FINAL 1994 STANDINGS ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Wales 4 3 0 1 78 51 6 England 4 3 0 1 60 49 6 France 4 2 0 2 84 69 4 Ireland 4 1 1 2 49 70 3 Scotland 4 0 1 3 38 70 1 FULL RESULTS 15 Jan: Wales 29 Scotland 6; France 35 Ireland 15. 5 Feb: Scotland 14 England 15; Ireland 15 Wales 17. 19 Feb: England 12 Ireland 13; Wales 24 France 15. 5 Mar: France 8 England 14; Ireland 6 Scotland 6. 19 Mar: England 15 Wales 8; Scotland 12 France 20. -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)