Rugby Union: Guscott sells the vision

Five Nations: England's finest is determined to lead new generation towards a brighter tomorrow; Tim Glover hears a positive response to England's critics
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The Independent Online
HAD ENGLAND actually lost to Scotland at Twickenham last week, the critics would have needed fresh supplies of vitriol. As it is, victory by 24-21 received a bad press: confused, unimaginative and lifeless were some of the kinder remarks made about a performance that had enigma written all over it without much sign of a code.

Last year England, following an immensely encouraging draw with New Zealand, crashed to France in the opening match of the Five Nations, and it was the decisive result of the championship. This time, following an immensely encouraging victory over South Africa, England were fortunate to survive against the Scots, whom the crowd had come to bury, not praise.

Both Lawrence Dallaglio, the captain and Clive Woodward, the coach, hinted that England had their eyes on the high road. "Maybe we could have changed our tactics but if we are to do well on a wider stage we have to play in a certain way," Dallaglio said. "We didn't quite perform the way we wanted." Then Dallaglio hit the low road. "It's all very well talking Scotland up but in the end they lost the football match."

Woodward also spoke of the wider picture, ie the World Cup, but given that they were lucky to win the Calcutta Cup, the Webb Ellis trophy seems a long way away. "We kept losing the ball and when the game deteriorated in the second half we could not get out of our malaise," Woodward admitted. "It's not the end of the world."

It might have been but for Jonny Wilkinson landing four kicks out of four. Selecting Wilkinson as a goal kicker was an inspired choice by Woodward but it was not based on form. For Newcastle, Wilkinson is hit or miss. In fact, he misses so often the question usually asked is: "Why doesn't Rob Andrew take the kicks?" Andrew, though, has done a good job in repairing the youngster's confidence after the disastrous tour to the Southern Hemisphere last year.

Jeremy Guscott, who was teaming up with Jonny-come-lately for the first time at centre, also put a paternal hand on Wilkinson's shoulder. "He had a fantastic game and he settled in as if he had won 60 caps," Guscott said. "It's a joy to see a 19-year-old coming into the side. Apart from anything else it provides a big incentive to youngsters all over the country."

Guscott and Wilkinson were given few opportunities to develop an attacking partnership, unlike their opposite numbers Alan Tait and John Leslie, and England's backs were often guilty of over-elaboration. In mitigation, the front row lacked authority, as did the entire eight following the departure of Martin Johnson.

"We were trying to do new things in a new back-line," Guscott said. "We are trying as hard as possible to progress. Sometimes, as in life, things happen and you have to take a couple of steps backwards. Moves were not always executed because we made errors in contact. People may not understand what Clive Woodward's trying to do but the players do and that's the important thing. Everyone, from one to 15, is responsible for decision-making."

Guscott takes a far more sanguine view of England's performance, and believes people are reading too much into it. "It's not like a game of chess in which every move is calculated," he said. "You can't predict what's going to happen after the first phase. Tries are scored either through brilliant lines of running or bad defence.

"People keep talking about adopting plan B or C if plan A doesn't work, but anybody who has got all those strategies must be called God. There's only one plan and that's to beat the opposition. We won.

"If things don't go well it's very difficult to change in midstream. The aim is to gain dominance and if you get that you can pretty well do what you want. If everything goes perfectly to plan the others don't get a sniff, but Scotland are a very good unit and they played some excellent rugby. You could spend a year dissecting what happened but we'll put it down to experience and move on."

England move on to Dublin next weekend to face a replenished Ireland, whose supporters are beginning to dream of a Triple Crown. "That's ridiculous," Warren Gatland, the Ireland coach, said. "People are craving for success but you've got to be realistic. When we beat Wales our feelings were simply of great relief. All it means at this stage is that we are not the worst side in the championship."

He couldn't possibly comment but as befits a man who has a share in an Irish racehorse called Rolling Maul (strong but slow, presumably) Gatland might be tempted to have a punt on Ireland even as he sings England's praises.

"All round they're a very strong side and difficult to beat," he said. "Last season they blew us away in the first 25 minutes at Twickenham. It will be a test to see how much we have improved in 12 months. I am sure England will try to take us on up front."

And there, according to Guscott, is where the Irish strength lies. "It's going to be hard," the centre said. "Ireland usually have a good pack and this one looks extremely strong. They don't lose their line-out; in Paddy Johns they have a player in similar mould to Martin Johnson and their second lieutenant, Keith Wood, is dynamic on his day."

Ireland are showing signs of long-term growth. Gatland, more pragmatist than gambler, is a year into the job and the five areas he has been concentrating on are scrum, line-out, ruck, maul and defence. "We are now reasonably competent," he said, "and we should be ready to take the game another step forward. The squad are comfortable with each other and you can't coach experience. After the Wales game some of the senior players told me that they're enjoying their rugby more than ever and one of the reasons is that it's the happiest Ireland team they've been involved in. By the World Cup we might have a pretty good side."

So what price England? "It's nice to get them at home," the Green Kiwi said.