Rugby Union: Gloating a sign of insecurity

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The Independent Online
AS ROB ANDREW pointed out after the Irish match 10 days ago, England could still win the Five Nations' Championship. To do so they would have to defeat France and Wales, and to finish with a bigger points difference than Wales.

What Andrew did not mention was that France could win the championship as well. They would have to beat England and Scotland, and also end up with a larger differential than Wales. In addition England would have to conquer Wales at Twickenham on 19 March.

To this extent, Saturday's encounter in Paris remains interesting. But it is no longer crucial. It is not the one meaningful match of the Five Nations which was touted at the beginning of the season. It is profitless to pretend that it is.

The great interest that is being shown in it by the national newspapers of France and England derives from the disappointing performances of their respective national sides. The English disappointment is the more acute, for several reasons.

Until the revolution led by Geoff Cooke and others which culminated in the Grand Slams of 1991 and 1992, England did not really expect to win much. Throughout the 1980s when there were numerous fine players around, they won the championship (and also a Grand Slam) only once, in 1980 under Bill Beaumont.

In most sports, what goes up must eventually come down. In club rugby, we have only to think of Coventry, London Welsh and Pontypool. Nations are no different: think of Wales from 1988, when they shared the championship with France, or Scotland from 1964, when they shared the championship with Wales, to 1984, when they completed a Grand Slam.

The New Zealanders breach this principle. Usually they are on top. Recently they were displaced by Australia. But England very nearly beat - should have beaten - Australia in the final of the World Cup.

At the beginning of this season, England defeated New Zealand, employing perfectly fair spoiling tactics which they complained about when Ireland adopted the same approach towards themselves. Why, England were as good as world champions - the more securely so since Scotland had performed so abjectly against the same opponents from the southern hemisphere, and Canada had defeated Wales.

What has gone wrong? The short answer is that it was not wholly right at the start. England supporters expected too much. They certainly expected some sporting success after the disappointments of 1993/94, notably the England football team's failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Commenting on televison after the Irish match, Mickey Skinner said that England's failing lay in not playing tightly enough - in over-emphasising the functions of the backs, whom he called the 'girls' and the 'Jessicas'. When the average First Division centre is six feet or so and well over 13st it is a little silly to called him a girl, however well the joke may go down at the Rectory Field.

And - though I was brought up never to make personal remarks - Skinner looked something of a Jessica himself, with a bouffant hair-do in a fetching tint of

auburn. I remember his hair as being of a different, more straw- like shade.

Nevertheless, I welcome him as rugby's answer to Jimmy Greaves but I think he is wrong here, and that England's failings stem from their midfield inadequacies. I should have replaced Andrew and De Glanville with Stuart Barnes and Mike Catt.

Many years ago, shortly after Edward Heath's fall from office, the Labour government found itself in difficulties. Sir Edward (as he now is) made a speech at the Conservative conference where he said it was wrong to gloat.

Immediately afterwards William Whitelaw was heard to exclaim on the Brighton promenade: 'Well, I'm gloating like hell.'

This is more or less the state of mind in which I find myself on St David's Day. I shall watch Saturday's encounter at the Parc des Princes with an eye of benevolent neutrality.