Rugby Union: Five Nations Focus: Coaching the cause of England's famine: It is 12 months since Will Carling's team scored a try. Barrie Fairall hears some of the reasons why

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The Independent Online
COME Saturday in Paris it will be almost exactly a year since England last scored a try. The four-match famine began after victory over Scotland during the last Five Nations' Championship and, with Will Carling's team not exactly starved of possession for much of those games, the home defeat by Ireland 11 days ago simply emphasised a sorry state of affairs: that England's backs have lost the ability to cross the try-line.

The England selectors have made five changes, three in the backs, for the Paris game, but the problem goes much deeper than that, according to some observers with strong views on the English game. Put simply, they say it is a question of coaching.

England scored 15 tries in the championship prior to the introduction of the new ruck and maul laws, four during the following season and none since. Gerry Murphy, the Irish coach, said after his side's Twickenham success: 'England played to the set pattern we expected. It's been an obvious pattern for some time now.'

Dick Best, the England coach, will have been particularly stung by that comment; Mike Slemen, who works under Best and is responsible for the back play, even more so. England, at the moment, are a pale shadow of the side that won back-to-back Grand Slams in 1991 and '92.

So where are things going wrong? Chalkie White, the Rugby Football Union's recently retired South-west technical administrator, believes the problem lies with the quality of coaching. In particular, he feels that some leading coaches have not responded well to the challenge posed by the new laws. 'They have not got down to the business of helping players solve the problems,' he said.

White is well qualified to speak on the subject of helping players. His coaching skills, particularly among the backs, received great acclaim when Leicester became the first team to win the cup three years in a row between 1979 and 1981. 'The players worked very hard on their skills every week,' White said. And when it came to singling out names, 'Clive Woodward was a very, very skilful player'.

Enter the Tiger who became a Lion in South Africa in 1980 in the course of an England career that earned him 21 caps as a centre. Departing the international scene after the victory over Wales at Twickenham in 1984, Woodward went to Australia. Now that he has returned he has not forgotten the lessons he learned Down Under.

The first thing Woodward learned was the benefits of the flat-ball game (see graphic). He was given a crash course in it in only his second league match, for Manly against Randwick. There he came face to face with two of the Ella brothers, Mark and Gary, and Lloyd Walker. The third Ella brother, Glen, was at full-back. 'Gary was only feet away, all gleaming teeth. For 80 minutes there were people running all over me. It was absolutely brilliant.'

Nor did it end there. 'Then I played against Randwick again without the Ellas and those young kids were doing it. What the Australians do is try and set up a collision point or a break-down and create a massive blindside, which is why the stand-off and two centres stand so flat, just fingertips apart.'

By the end of his stay in Australia, Woodward was as sold on the flat-ball game as his hosts. 'Go with the flow. Twenty-five per cent of it is technique and 75 per cent of it is attitude towards how you're going to play the game,' Woodward said. He cannot understand why England's backs still lie so wide and deep. To him, the solution is simple. Play the flat-ball game and they might start scoring some tries.

Woodward has been helping to coach the Henley backs. Unbeaten in South-west One, the club are heading for the National League Fifth Division. They reached the fourth round of this season's Pilkington Cup before losing at Bristol and, either way, are on course for next season's competition after trouncing Oxford 41-3 in a county cup semi-final last Sunday.

'The trouble with our guys is that because they're lying so deep they just run across the field,' Woodward continued, 'and by the time the wing gets the ball he's on the touchline. It's a very nice game to play because all the tackles are side on. It all looks good but no one is going anywhere. In Australia, everyone is running straight at you.'

Woodward watched the Irish win at Twickenham. 'I thought I'd played in some pretty bad England sides. But, Jesus, the attitude was just awful. I get so frustrated because they could probably pick two or three packs of forwards and win 50 per cent of possession against anyone. It's what happens after all that. It just falls apart.'

The flat-ball game? 'I don't think anyone over here understands it apart from Henley. To me it's just so obvious. There's no other way to play the game if you're going to play 15-man rugby. If you're not, don't pick Neil Back. I feel so sorry for him. He was running all over the pitch but he never got his hands on the ball because everyone kept kicking it away. Rob Andrew? He's a lovely fellow and all that, but honestly]'

Woodward was invited, along with Michael Hawker, an outstanding Wallaby currently working in England, to Twickenham in January to talk to coaches about flat-line play. 'One senior coach said to me, 'What happens if it's raining. Surely you need a dry day?' I asked him if he had ever watched rugby league on a wet Saturday afternoon. Those guys are fantastic. I couldn't believe he asked that question. Don't tell me we haven't got the talent. If you think you can't pass the ball when it's wet, you're whacked.

'All you seem to hear England talking about nowadays is referees, amateurism and the new laws. Now I run a business and if I put negative thoughts into everyone's mind then they'll think negative. So, if you hear the England captain saying we're not scoring tries because of the new laws then everybody's going out thinking the same. It's absolute baloney.'

Woodward is also concerned by another English attitude. 'The game in England is dominated by forwards in terms of coaching, thinking and everything else. You've got Mick Skinner on TV saying we've got to ignore the 'Jessicas' in the backs because that's the way we beat the All Blacks last November. I was probably the only bloke in the country who thought it wasn't that good a game. They didn't score a try and that's the bottom line. Everyone talks about quality ball and all that happens is that it's hoofed off the park. We should be scoring four or five tries a game. Now I seem to be in a total minority here. I want to see a game that's won 35-32.'

Woodward might be in for a long wait. 'There was a coaching session at Bisham Abbey the other night. There were about 50 coaches present. They split the forwards and backs and about 45 went off to watch the forwards knocking seven bells out of each other, which left five skinny rascals watching the backs. It sums up the whole thing, though I'd give my right arm to be invited to sit down with the England players and say, 'What the hell are you doing?' Instead, I'll probably be banned for life.'

(Graphic omitted)

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