Rugby Union: Joy over Andrew's pride

Five Nations: Extravagant gifts of a young centre of excellence held in reserve as No 10 shirt awaits
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The Independent Online
OF THE innumerable intoxicating delights which held us spellbound throughout last Saturday's three-hour rugbyfest in Paris and Dublin, there was nothing better than Jonny Wilkinson's exquisite try-scoring pass to Matt Perry. That evening, even before the Irish coffee had taken effect, Rob Andrew was in eloquent flow extolling the virtues of his protege with an extravagance of language not normally associated with this level-headed, pragmatic man.

Wilkinson, he ventured, was the most naturally gifted young player he had ever seen. Andrew was equally positive in his assertion that no other player in the country could have pulled off such an audacious pass as the one which led to Perry's try. Jeremy Guscott, he said, would not even have contemplated it. Andrew countered the argument that as a naturally left-sided player Wilkinson's pass from left to right was off his stronger wing by maintaining that he could pass to this degree of accuracy off either hand.

Cash permitting, Andrew has great plans for his young charge. His insistence that Wilkinson should play his club rugby at centre rather than the position in which he is so obviously destined to make his name, and possibly his fortune, is simply that it is asking too much of a teenager to burden him with the dual responsibilities of frontline goal-kicker and principal playmaker. When the time is right, and now Andrew believes that to be sooner rather than later, Wilkinson will switch to fly-half in the Newcastle back line and shortly thereafter, one assumes, for England.

If this may seem a little harsh on Paul Grayson who performed more than adequately in Dublin, then it is just the Northampton man's misfortune to be around at the same time as a player of such rare quality. Grayson is an admirably solid citizen who can be relied upon to do the right thing at approximately the right time, and if he is not the sort to set the pulse racing he does at least keep it ticking along steadily.

Yet Woodward clearly wants and expects more from his team. He knows that England are still too one-dimensional, which makes the claim made on his behalf last week that they are playing a different and more dangerous game to everyone else, all the more mystifying.

Apparently England are the only country purposely taking the ball into those contact areas where the enemy is most densely concentrated. This, supposedly, is a high-risk game which offers a substantial return because when the ball emerges there are fewer defenders for the backs to beat. On the other hand it is presumably much harder to release the ball quickly from those heavily populated thickets, which may have something to do with England's difficulties in turning their undoubted physical superiority and pressure into points.

Of course sides like Scotland and Wales who are smaller and lighter will seek ways of escaping bruising confrontation by the smash-and-grab tactics they have been employing so far. But it seems fairly obvious that if England have the forward power they should want to make the best use of it, just as the Springboks did throughout their victorious run. There was nothing earth-shattering about that, just as there was nothing ground- breaking about England's game plan at Lansdowne Road, they simply played to their strengths.

The fact is that in the modern game, designed to satisfy the lowest tolerance threshold of the spectators, when possession from crooked feeds at the scrummage and from lifting at the line-outs is, as near as dammit, guaranteed for the side putting or throwing the ball in, the opportunities for tactical subtleties are limited. We learned nothing about England last week that we didn't already know. They have the best pack in the four Home Countries and, from what was on show in Paris last Saturday, very probably in the whole competition. They also have an enviably well-equipped defence. They certainly found it much easier to defend than Ireland did to attack. How much of this was due to the quality of the English defence and how much to the shortcomings of the Irish attack is uncertain. It is tempting to suggest that we will know more after the game at Twickenham on Saturday when the French, the world's most fluent and gifted runners, will surely explore every inch of England's protective shell.

So much, however, depends on the depth of the aftershock in France in the wake of last week. Both Wales and France were psychologically tuned to an attacking game and by shedding their inhibitions they released themselves from the confinement of conventionally organised defence. France have since made changes to the side, clearly with defence in mind, and the question is whether or not they can switch from defence to attack. If not and they are suckered into an attritional battle they will be playing a losing game.

Of the torrent of statistical information which flowed from last Saturday's matches one fact stood out. The crowd at Stade de France surpassed by 3,000 the ground record set at the football World Cup final.

The Five Nations' Championship this season has not only been ferociously competitive but has also provided rich entertainment. Yet, incredibly, there are those who are intent on putting at risk this spectacularly successful tournament, on which the whole of rugby in this country depends. The leading English clubs, whose combined following each week wouldn't even half-fill Twickenham, in collusion with the ship of fools running the game aground at headquarters, want to switch the championship to the end of the season so that the Premiership clubs can enjoy an uninterrupted schedule of matches.

Meanwhile, Bill Beaumont, the most placid of men, has been sufficiently dismayed by the clubs' latest attempts to hijack the European competition that he has written a letter of protest to the president of the RFU. And representatives from England's First Division clubs have been engaged in a series of clandestine meetings, the results of which could destabilise the domestic game in Scotland and Ireland. For how much longer is the game prepared to tolerate these increasingly desperate men and their manoeuvrings?