Rugby Union / Five Nations Verdict: Ferocious contest delivers melancholy message: The home unions face a depressing conclusion as they look towards the 1995 World Cup, argues Steve Bale

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The Independent Online
WINNING is never enough. It was Dick Best, when still coach of England B, who articulated the uncomfortable reality that England had to win in style if they were to gain any critical acclaim.

Such had become the overbearing expectancy, and as time has elapsed so it has grown greater. Thus if England lose by a point to Ireland it occasions a national debate; even if they beat France in Paris people wonder what is wrong. It happened in the Five Nations' Championship that ended last Saturday.

To say that Scotland, Ireland and Wales would be delighted to be 'wrong' enough to win at Parc des Princes is scarcely an original thought, but in any case Best has learned to shrug off the criticism. He has been coach of England for three seasons now and, never mind the occasional defeat, his England side are still the best in the championship even if they do not always play the best. (And they beat New Zealand.)

This is not to say that Wales did not deserve to win the 1994 Five Nations. On the contrary, over these two impossibly erratic months they were the most consistent and, in converting a high percentage of their attacking chances into tries, showed it was possible to play a passably fluid game even under the debilitating handicap of the new laws.

Good for them. If the Welsh resurgence of '94 continues into 1995, especially if it goes on into the World Cup, it will be the most significant international development since the South Africans were reintroduced to world rugby in 1992. It takes some believing, mind, that Wales's next two outings are against Portugal and Spain or that they are more important than their last two, against France and England.

This is the penalty for the unfortunate timing of the 1991 World Cup - slap in the middle of the worst depression in Welsh rugby history. Spot the difference between Wales, whose qualifying fixtures will take in Romania and Italy as well as Iberia, and England, who have been able to plan ahead to next year's tournament even from before this Five Nations. For them Romania next autumn will be no more than a friendly.

Indeed, Will Carling made the point before England had played a single championship match that in his eyes '94 would be useful only in as much as it prepared his England team for '95. 'It would be lovely to win more games than we lose but we have to be brave and strong enough to think that '95 is the ultimate goal,' he said. 'I'd like to win but along the way things will go wrong. You can't expect perfection for 18 months.' This was remarkable prescience.

First, his team have clearly been building long term. Second, it was lovely for them because they won more games (3) than they lost (1). Third, things did go wrong. Fourth, England's rugby was anything but perfection. But then, as Carling also said: 'If everything goes right, we won't see our full potential until May 1995.'

As well as prescient this is profoundly optimistic, far more so than any of the other home countries can possibly be as they face up to next year's tournament. For instance, however delirious Ireland may have been to win at Twickenham, this championship again showed them to be incapable of stringing performances together - which is the very essence of a worthy World Cup campaign.

To rouse yourselves for one big game now and then - the '91 quarter-final against Australia is the best example but the last two games against England also figure - is all very well but is it enough? Not for Gerry Murphy, the Ireland coach, it's not.

Scotland are a slightly different case, since when they roused themselves they still lost. Things may not be as bad as they appeared during the annihilation by the All Blacks and the subsequent Welsh whipping. But receipt of the wooden spoon accurately reflected the uncomfortable truth that the splendid '91 World Cup generation remain inadequately replaced and that the onus consequently placed on the surviving senior players, specifically the Hastings brothers, has become more than they can bear.

If, finally, you accept that the unpredictability of the French gives them both a chance and no chance in the World Cup - which is not a contradiction in terms - then you have to accept that the omens for this part of the world in South Africa next year are disappointingly unpropitious.

This is the melancholy message of the 1994 Five Nations' Championship. The quality of its rugby has had opprobrium heaped upon it but the games still attract huge attendances - 68,000 for each of those at Twickenham being the biggest - and the television companies bidding monopoly money for the next contract know a multi-million-pound bargain when they see one.

Besides, the physical ferocity was as great as ever: which is something the pundits frequently fail to recognise when they wonder why players make so many mistakes and take so many wrong options. In fact it is hardly surprising when you are about to hit or be hit extremely hard and then have to dust yourself down and start all over again.

'South Africa watched the World Cup and said this is pretty average stuff, because they didn't really understand what they were watching,' Geoff Cooke, now happy to be the ex-manager of England, said. 'Until you are out there you simply don't understand the intensity and pace and power of it.

'The southern hemisphere still tend to say that sort of thing about the Five Nations. When you watch as a detached observer, you maybe make false assumptions. But we know what it's like and, although the quality may not always be apparent, nevertheless all the 30 players on the field are putting in a fantastic effort.'

As a valedictory statement this was typical generosity from a man who in his way has probably done as much as any of his or anyone else's players to heighten the championship's profile through England's ascendancy during his management years. Not least, indeed, in 1994, though his departure is a reminder that all things must pass - even England threequarters (only joking).

Now Jack Rowell is manager and unwonted change is in the air. As Dick Best said all those years ago, England can never win, and perhaps this is even more true of the coach, who is liable to take the blame for defeat and none of the credit for victory.