Rugby Union: Intrigue of call to Arms

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The Independent Online
IT MAY be chance, the company I keep, or a bit of both: but, as far as the Five Nations' Championship is concerned, the matches between two pairs of countries seem regularly to cause more argument, friendly and otherwise, than all the rest put together. One is England against Wales. The other is England against France.

The controversy about England's win in Paris last season still goes on, despite the best endeavours of the authorities, French as much as English, to suppress it. Thus: was the penalty try awarded to England really such at all? Should not a kick have been given to France instead because Dewi Morris (whether deliberately or not) side-footed the ball back into the scrum?

More generally, were the French forwards unfairly discriminated against over violent play? Pierre Berbizier and others certainly thought so, and said as much before the encounter at Twickenham 10 days ago. Though French officials joined their English counterparts in urging everyone to let bygones be bygones, there was a discernible whiff of Gallic resentment in the air - with, in my opinion, a certain amount of justification.

In these circumstances, it was little short of a miracle that the match was played in the spirit it was. People are still talking about it. It clearly made a powerful impact, not so much on the aficionados who turn out to watch rugby Saturday after Saturday - though it certainly impressed them too - as on the overwhelming majority whose interest in the game begins and ends with the televised championship.

It threw up more technical questions as well. Was England's penalty in the first minute 'really' a penalty? Is there something wrong with England's front row? Jeff Probyn did not seem to be making his normal impression on the opposing loose head. Indeed, it appeared to be Louis Armary who was causing difficulties for Probyn.

Again, some of my colleagues make Ben Clarke, not perhaps the man of the match (for that title would surely have to go to Jean-Baptiste Lafond), but the outstanding England performer on account of his powerful surges. Not so, says another commentator: for graft, England are missing Paul Ackford, who has retired, and Dean Richards, who is still available. I take no part in this controversy, except to observe that, if England can afford to drop Richards, they are very fortunate.

The biggest question is: are England, with their one opportunist try by Ian Hunter, admittedly against two almost equally opportunist tries by Philippe Saint-Andre, now over the hump and going downhill? This is what makes the Cardiff match even more fascinating than usual.

Recently, they have been remembered more for their unpleasant episodes than for the quality of the rugby which they have produced. Twickenham 1980 will be remembered for Paul Ringer's dismissal after a high tackle on John Horton - though Welsh supporters maintained afterwards that the, as they thought, unjustly persecuted and prejudged flanker was merely trying to charge down Horton's kick.

Cardiff 1987 will be remembered for the fracas involving Wade Dooley and others which led to the suspension of him and three additional English players. In his book The Tower and the Glory, written with Gerry Greenberg, he has provided an account of what happened:

'At the second line-out, punches started to fly. Bob Norster aimed an elbow at Steve Bainbridge which missed its target. Instead it smashed into his own team- mate (Steve) Sutton, laying him out with a broken nose. All hell broke out around me but I just followed the play, only to see a Welsh fist flash at John Hall as he drove through on to the ball. I saw red, literally. It was a gut reaction, totally spontaneous. I lashed out at Hall's assailant, completely unaware of his identity, and the punch landed with a sickening thud on the side of (Phil) Davies's face. Fortunately, from my point of view, Mr 'Ray' Megson and his linesmen had failed to see the blow.'

Davies suffered a broken cheekbone and had to leave the field, to be replaced by Richie Collins. Dooley is to be congratulated on his candour in recounting the incident. He will almost certainly be back in Cardiff six years later. I am sure he and everyone else will behave well on this occasion, as England and France did at Twickenham.