Rugby Union: Guscott still the jewel in England's crown

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Wales (3) 13 England (6) 34

Howley Tries Stimpson, Underwood,

Hill, De Glanville

Davies Cons Catt 4

Davies 2 Pens Catt 2

At the fag end of a century in which we have split the atom, put men on the moon, cloned a sheep and discovered the existence of cyberspace, one great mystery still eats away at the human imagination. Why, in the name of whatever God science has left us, did Jeremy Guscott spend all but 44 minutes of the 1997 Five Nations' Championship warming his backside on the replacements' bench? There is not a philosopher on this earth who can explain that one.

Least of all Jack Rowell, the England coach who enjoys something of a reputation as a Machiavellian thinker; indeed, he added insult to astonishment in Cardiff on Saturday by sending a public memo to Fran Cotton, the Lions manager, on the very subject under debate. "Jerry should go to South Africa as a centre this summer and play in the Tests," he said of the man he famously christened "The Prince". "But then, I'm biased."

Beg your pardon, Jack? Do we hear you correctly? With favouritism like that, who needs enemies? Rowell and Guscott go back a long way and generally understand each other's funny little mind games, but this was Jack at his most unfathomable. Good enough for the Lions but not for England? Now there's an interesting one.

Perhaps Rowell is rugby's first tactical post-modernist, a coach who takes a deconstructionist approach to selection by working on the premise that the better a player is, the less time he requires on the pitch. There is, however, a more prosaic explanation for all of this: that having appointed Phil de Glanville captain for his strong leadership qualities - qualities that were very apparent at the Arms Park, by the way - Rowell got his knickers in a twist when the time arrived to commit the grossest of all Home Counties heresies and drop Will Carling.

Whatever the truth of the matter, his "Don't do as I do, do as I say" message to Cotton bordered on the bizarre in the light of a magisterial Guscott second-half performance that, almost in an instant, transformed a tight and brutally tribal encounter into a one-way steamroller job. During the first 40 minutes, England had to fight tooth and nail to keep the age-old Cardiff demons at bay; after the break, it was almost as if the Arms Park demolition crew had arrived early in search of overtime, and by the time Rob Andrew resumed his international career as a replacement for Mike Catt in the last few minutes the contest was all but over.

The catalyst was Guscott, whose only previous run in this season's championship had been a four-minute cameo in Dublin. On that occasion he turned an already comfortable victory into a massacre, but this was different; at 6-3, the game was as delicately balanced as a set of goldsmith's scales when Jon Sleightholme headed for the tunnel, an icepack pressed against his left temple, and his club-mate purred on to fill the hole on the right wing.

Within eight minutes, Guscott topped and tailed Wayne Procter to send Tim Stimpson in at the right corner for what amounted to a Triple Crown try. If that was good, it had nothing on the stop-start-wiggle-wriggle- sidestep-jink routine that presented Richard Hill with an even easier run-in. How reassuring to know that England can treat such genius as an occasional luxury.

Leaving aside the honourable exceptions of Jonathan Davies, whose rich contribution to Arms Park legend was only enhanced by a performance of mighty integrity, and Rob Howley, who could leave an army for dead with a single bat of his left eyelid, the Welsh were turned to stone as surely as if they had paid a collective visit to the Medusa. Fittingly, given the National Stadium's imminent appointment with the bulldozers, the atmosphere on the whistle was almost funereal.

While the Welsh were secure in the knowledge that their great sporting cathedral would be rebuilt - all outstanding contractual issues surrounding the pounds 14m project were being concluded yesterday - the Lions selectors were more concerned with the reconstruction work on Neil Jenkins' shattered left arm. The home side's meticulously productive goal-kicker lasted rather less than a quarter of the game before being whisked away to hospital for an X-ray and when the results reached the Arms Park, the worst-case scenario was confirmed as reality.

"It's a fracture and it could be a long job," said Kevin Bowring, the Welsh coach, whose experience had been quite chastening enough without this. "Neil may need a plate inserted into his arm." Bad news for Wales, crippling news for Cotton and company. The Lions had been banking on the Pontypridd captain as their No 1 marksman against the Springboks and his misfortune will demand a major rethink before the squad is named on 2 April.

At least they have a viable alternative in the full-back department. Tim Stimpson's coming-of-age display was proof positive that he is close to adding unshakeable mental application to his obvious physical gifts and that, as Rowell was quick to point out, makes him a very precious talent indeed.

The Lions will also have taken note of Tim Rodber and Hill, partners in the visiting back row. Both men turned in their best performances of the campaign - the former was too strong and aggressive for the Welsh, the latter far too quick around the paddock - and if Catt can build on his most solid contribution yet in the England No 10 shirt, he, too, will be a major asset on the high veld.

Assuming that the Triple Crown is still held to be a prize of sorts, Rowell's winning record at international level remains intact; indeed, he has landed some sort of trophy, tangible or otherwise, every year bar one since 1984. How ironic, though, that he should have denied himself his best shot at a second Grand Slam in three years by omitting a player he believes, in his heart of hearts, to be the best.

WALES: N Jenkins (Pontypridd); S Hill (Cardiff), A Bateman (Richmond), N Davies (Llanelli), G Thomas (Bridgend); J Davies (Cardiff), R Howley (Cardiff); C Loader (Swansea), J Humphreys (Cardiff, capt), D Young (Cardiff), G Llewellyn (Harlequins), M Voyle (Llanelli), S Williams (Neath), S Quinnell (Richmond), K Jones (Ebbw Vale). Replacements: W Procter (Llanelli) for Jenkins, 14; S John (Llanelli) for Loader, 22; D McIntosh (Pontypridd) for Jones, 64; C Quinnell (Richmond) for Voyle, 68.

ENGLAND: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), T Underwood (Newcastle); M Catt (Bath), A Healey (Leicester); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), B Clarke (Richmond), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens). Replacements: P Greening (Gloucester) for Regan, h-t; J Guscott (Bath) for Sleightholme, h-t; C Sheasby (Wasps) for Clarke, 69; R Andrew (Newcastle) for Catt, 72; D Garforth (Leicester) for Rowntree, 77.

Referee: J Dume (France).

Lawrence Dallaglio, who missed Saturday's match with a heavy cold, yesterday ruled himself out of the Hong Kong Sevens next weekend because of his continuing illness. Richard Hill has been called up to replace him, while Tim Rodber steps in as captain.

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