Rugby Union: Former captain's case for defence

Rugby Union: Phil de Glanville will try to build a platform for the defeat of South Africa at Twickenham tomorrow
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The Independent Online
PHIL DE GLANVILLE has recently adopted a philosophical approach to the bouquet and brickbat world of professional rugby, which seems entirely appropriate for a player suspected by his critics of coining the maxim: "I tackle, therefore I am." Six confusing, often exasperating years in the international arena might easily have left England's former captain questioning his own sanity, yet he has emerged from the labyrinth of self- doubt with his faculties, if not his Hollywood looks, wholly intact.

"In this game," he says, "you go high and you go low. The trick is to stay on an even keel."

Which is precisely where he intends to position the English back division when they confront Henry Honiball, Andre Snyman and the rest of the Springbok record hunters at Twickenham tomorrow. Throughout his career, De Glanville has been publicly belittled as pedestrian and one-dimensional, a mere manservant to the court of St Jeremy of Guscott, a commoner clad in Will Carling's ermine. No matter that he was, and is, the shrewdest of defensive organisers, the soundest of tacklers, the most effective of high-ball chasers. Some players, it seems, are born to play second fiddle.

Take a careful look at the statistics, though, and the real story emerges; one that demonstrates just how well De Glanville stacks up as an attacking midfielder. In the 21 Tests he has started since the autumn of 1993, England have scored 45 tries and conceded 33 - figures that compare favourably with the 53-35 ratio from the 23 games (a total that ignores the unrepresentative southern hemisphere matches last summer) in which he was not on the field from the outset. During his eight months as captain between November 1996 and the following July, his country's offensive forces caught fire as never before, running in 30 tries in the eight full internationals in which he participated.

In the pre-Clive Woodward era, however, England selection was all about perception rather than fact and De Glanville was sacrificed on the altar of expediency more times than he cares to remember. Jack Rowell should have picked him ahead of Guscott during the knock-out stages of the 1995 World Cup but bottled out when the sheer scale of the heresy dawned on him. It was also patently obvious that De Glanville was in better shape than Carling during the 1996 Five Nations, yet Rowell again kept one eye on the potential discomforts of trial by inquisition and sidestepped the hard decision.

"Yes, I used to get very het up about it all, but I slowly came to realise that all the anger was doing no-one any good, least of all me," he said this week. "Perhaps it's my age, perhaps it's the fact that I have a baby son to care about now, but I've reached the stage where the ups and downs don't really affect me. I've seen it and heard it all so many times and I know that while I continue to play the game at this level, I'll see it and hear it all again. So yes, I think I'm completely philosophical about my rugby.

"I still find it mildly irritating that people should automatically pigeon- hole me as a defensive specialist and nothing else, but I can understand where they're coming from. I'm not foolish enough to pretend I'm much of a strike runner; my strengths lay in the unglamorous areas, the parts that don't catch the eye. But if you're going to break down these leading teams, someone has to pull opponents on to him and create some space for others to exploit. You do what you do to the best of your ability. End of story.

"It's the same with selection. You either get picked or you don't. Looking at the current England squad, it's pretty clear that apart from a tiny handful of certainties - Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson, Jerry - everyone is in there scrapping for a starting place. If you take my own inside centre position, it's obvious that if Will Greenwood is fully fit and playing to his ability, he'll continue as first choice. That's fine. I'm no stranger to bench duty and anyway, Clive's communication skills are such that you always feel part of the set-up. He may not choose you, but he at least goes out of his way to give you a valid reason. No player can ask more of his coach."

Just as no coach could have asked more of a late replacement than De Glanville gave against the Wallabies last weekend; never one for the measured appraisal when a few superlatives are available, Woodward went from the common or garden "outstanding" to the fully fledged "brilliant" via the merely "magnificent" to describe his stand-in's contribution. He was perfectly justified in singing De Glanville's praises, too. As the Springboks have proved over the 17 separate courses of their victorious banquet, defence is not only 50 per cent of the game, but the most important 50 per cent.

"They conceded a try a match in the last Tri-Nations tournament and that is a winning formula," agreed De Glanville. "Everyone has this fanciful image of the Springboks as an adventurous side, a running unit that constantly moves the ball from one end of the threequarter line to the other. But the reality is that they kick the ball more than any other leading team in world rugby. They kick it from deep, force the opposition to turn and then hit them with the green wall. They are very, very patient - you can see that from the number of times they have come from behind to win close contests - and I have to say that had we followed their example last Saturday, we might well have beaten the Australians. We fell into the trap of running unpromising ball back at them instead of kicking it back. We were a little naive, I think. Of course it was disappointing to lose in the way we did. We made a big statement against the Wallabies but we didn't actually win the game and we have to accept that until we tie up a victory over one of the southern hemisphere powers, we'll stay on the wrong side of a very fine, but very visible line. We are their equals in a number of areas, but not in the ones that really matter - belief, confidence, killer instinct. One win could make all the difference, though. Just one win."

If it happens tomorrow, De Glanville will not be slow in appreciating the irony of the occasion. For only the second time - and, given Greenwood's current pre-eminence, possibly the last - he is about to start a home Test alongside Guscott, his midfield partner at Bath for the best part of a decade. Both have cost the other a full season's worth of international caps; thanks to Carling's longevity, the clubmates were cast as rivals at international level. But the sentimentalists in the Twickenham crowd, especially those from the western reaches of the M4, will wonder what might have been if De Glanville, the fetcher, puts Guscott, the carrier, over the Springbok line for a historic winning try.