Rugby Union / Five Nations Championship: Fresh approach to Wales' old routine: Davies counsels caution and Cooke calls for quality as France hope to be stirred by wooden spoon

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WALES have never gone for the Grand Slam at Twickenham but, that apart, it is quite like old times as the Welsh converge hopefully on HQ. Why, one man from the Rhondda has sold the slates off his roof to afford the price of a black-market ticket. Perhaps he would care to throw in the shirt off his back.

Come on down Stephen Spiller, demonstrating the single-minded (one-eyed?) fanaticism that earned Welsh followers an unenviable reputation 20-odd years ago. Nowadays greater humility is in order.

Which is why everyone who has anything to do with this Wales team has been relentlessly counselling caution amid the rapturous aftermath of beating Scotland, Ireland and France - only the second time since 1979 Wales have won three championship matches. 'We still don't believe as a team that we can do it, that we can play rugby properly,' Alan Davies, the Wales coach, said.

Even a Grand Slam, and the Triple Crown and championship that would go with it, would be but a step on a long road. Indeed even Stephen Spiller might consider victory in the 100th England-Wales match less important than it will be in May when Wales play Portugal and Spain in World Cup qualifiers.

The very worst characteristic of the post-golden era was the assumption by the Welsh that to beat England made everything all right. This was both presumptuous and patronising and once it was no longer true it made those who had said and thought it look ludicrous. English revenge, when it eventually came in huge wins at Twickenham in 1991 and '93, was sweet.

Ludicrous is how Welsh rugby had tended to look until its 1994 transformation. No more odds-shouting, no more hubris, only the mildest of digs at England for their try-scoring dearth. 'I'm not being patronising when I say they are capable of scoring tries,' Davies said. 'In fact we are concerned that they might come good against us.'

Davies's concern is England's hope, though no longer the expectation it has been before each of the previous games - narrow victories over Scotland and France, narrow defeat by Ireland - which have left them requiring to beat Wales by a 16-point margin in order to become champions for the third time in four seasons.

Simply winning is, however, the thought on Will Carling's mind. The Five Nations' Trophy is an entirely spurious bauble and an improved performance - with the welcome corollary of sending Geoff Cooke into retirement on a felicitous note - is all the captain seems to care about.

'The scoreboard is irrelevant,' he said yesterday. 'I'll be delighted if we manage to win. It would be incredibly arrogant to expect to win by 16 points. In an ideal world you win with style; being more realistic, you sometimes win without style. We wouldn't be thanked for losing with style.'

This is somewhat disingenuous because, however satisfied Carling may profess to be, Cooke is far from content with the way England have been playing. And one can take it for granted that Jack Rowell, the manager's anointed successor, is even less so.

Cooke said: 'We feel we've struggled to hit 50 per cent of the capability of this side. France was acceptable because we won in Paris but even then there were lots of areas we weren't happy with.

'We managed to find about six and a half minutes' video of decent play from us - which was actually less than we found from Scotland and about the same as Ireland. We feel we have room for a big improvement; whether it comes is another matter. If it does, we will produce a game to remember.'

Having said that, Cooke could not resist a dig at Wales, whose revival, he said, far from stemming from the free flow of the ball, was based on even less 'decent play' than England had managed. To which Alan Davies could reasonably retort that at least Wales have nailed down a few tries.

The principal English excuse for their absence of penetration has been roguish opponents who have stopped tries at the expense of penalties and if Welsh backs are to the wall tomorrow the 68,000 present will probably see yet more. England, one might almost suppose, never transgress - which would be a joke if it had not been true during the 25 minutes the French siege took to break at Parc des Princes.

That was an example of English discipline - a favoured word of the Cooke era - but sometimes, surely, it is permissible to relax the stiff upper lip and introduce a tear or two of emotion. A nice combination of emotion and unwonted discipline is what has swept Wales through the championship.

Ieuan Evans equals Arthur Gould's record of 18 matches as Wales captain, Brian Moore reaches 50 caps as England's hooker. . . and neither gives a monkey's - begging the late Arthur's pardon, as this was his nickname. The only record that matters is whether Wales do or do not extend their series lead from the present 48-39. Probably not, but without an English try or two sweet 16 will remain a sweet dream.

----------------------------------------------------------------- ENGLAND v WALES ----------------------------------------------------------------- (At Twickenham) I Hunter Northampton 15 M Rayer Cardiff T Underwood Leicester 14 I Evans Llanelli, capt W Carling Harlequins, capt 13 M Hall Cardiff P de Glanville Bath 12 N Davies Llanelli R Underwood Leicester 11 N Walker Cardiff R Andrew Wasps 10 N Jenkins Pontypridd D Morris Orrell 9 R Moon Llanelli J Leonard Harlequins 1 R Evans Llanelli B Moore Harlequins 2 G Jenkins Swansea V Ubogu Bath 3 J Davies Neath M Johnson Leicester 4 P Davies Llanelli N Redman Bath 5 G O Llewellyn Neath T Rodber Northampton 6 E Lewis Llanelli D Richards Leicester 8 S Quinnell Llanelli B Clarke Bath 7 M Perego Llanelli Replacements: 16 J Callard (Bath), Replacements: 16 R Jones (Swansea), 17 M Catt (Bath), 18 K Bracken 17 A Clement (Swansea), 18 S Hill (Bristol), 19 S Ojomoh (Bath), (Cardiff), 19 R McBryde (Swansea), 20 G Rowntree (Leicester), 20 H Williams-Jones (Llanelli), 21 G Dawe (Bath). 21 A Copsey (Llanelli). Referee: J Fleming (Scotland). Kick-off: 2.45. TV: Live on BBC 1/BBC Wales. -----------------------------------------------------------------

----------------------------------------------------------------- FIVE NATIONS TABLE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Wales 3 3 0 0 70 36 6 England 3 2 0 1 45 41 4 Ireland 4 1 1 2 49 70 3 France 3 1 0 2 64 57 2 Scotland 3 0 1 2 26 50 1 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)