Rugby Union: King's brain powers past the brawn

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The Independent Online
Gloucester 12 Wasps 13

QUITE A cabaret, one way or another; a snarling, seething, red- blooded slab of street theatre, tinged with violence and deliciously topped off with lashings of hot controversy. Yes, the Kingsholm Shed is back in business with a hugely entertaining production entitled: "Great crowd, shame about the rugby". If there were any justice, the players would be paying pounds 15 a head to come in and watch the terraces.

There will be any amount of self-righteous spluttering about the behaviour of the Gloucester lynch-mob during and after Saturday's defeat by Wasps. Apparently, Tom Walkinshaw, the motor racing magnate who liked the Cherry and Whites so much that he bought the club, was none too impressed by their raucous interruption of BSkyB's on-pitch interviews, their threatening demeanour as they clustered around the players' tunnel and their multi- decibel suggestion that the referee might habitually indulge in certain practices of a solitary nature.

And to be sure, the finale was a touch on the lively side. Will Green and Alex King, the two rejected England internationals who conjured up an injury-time sucker-punch to steal the spoils, were given some unholy stick as they tried to relive their moment of glory for the television cameras. Meanwhile, Lawrence Dallaglio's mum, no less, enthusiastically involved herself in a touchline barney with a purple-faced local. Not exactly Millwall circa 1975, but boisterous all the same.

Did it worry the visitors? Did it heck. "The Shed? I wish we had a crowd like that," said Nigel Melville, Wasps' director of rugby. Dallaglio, who copped it even larger than usual from his West Country fan club, was quick to concur. "I'd probably miss them if they weren't there," he smiled. "Seriously, they make the trip worthwhile. My mother can stand up for herself. She'd do well in the Shed, don't you think?"

The puritanical wing of the rugby fraternity may hold up their hands in horror - "You can't have this sort of thing going on, it will look terrible on television" - but at least they care down Gloucester way. They understand that the game is nothing without its bit of rough, without its fire and venom, and they have a clear idea of what rugby is and where is should be going.

Which is more than can be said for those who earn a living from the sport, for union is asphyxiating itself with its own rule book. Poor Brian Campsall, enough of a rugby man to ignore the appalling sin-bin, was forced to award 41 penalties on Saturday, 29 of them to Wasps, in a heartfelt effort to stop the rampant ball-killing and free up the action. He might as well have awarded 141 penalties. As Brian Ashton, the most imaginative advocate of attacking rugby presently at work in the English game, said as he left the Kingsholm stand: "I can't believe I've just watched that. What a shambles."

Rugby used to regulate itself through a tried and trusted system of summary justice. If a player insisted on lying all over the ball, he would be given an advisory helping of "shoe pie". If he persisted in sneaking around the wrong side of mauls, a bunch of fives would persuade him to rethink his strategy. Referees turned a blind eye, happy in the knowledge that the sets of forwards would sort themselves out.

It doesn't work like that now, more's the pity. When Green, perhaps the most accomplished footballing prop in the country, tried to ruck the obstructive Rob Fidler off the park as Wasps began to crank up the heat in the second half, he was flagged by a touchjudge and rollocked by the ref, who promptly reversed a penalty decision. Yet every coach and every player in the country stresses the importance of "quick ball" in producing a fast, flowing game. There is no quicker ball than ruck ball, but you cannot have rucks without boots on bodies.

At least Green had the last laugh. He had scrummaged beautifully all afternoon, utterly eclipsing Phil Vickery, the sitting England tenant, and after 85 minutes of unstinting work in the trenches, he had sufficient reserves of energy to follow up King's glistening midfield break and barrel his way over at the posts. Kenny Logan kicked the conversion to take the Londoners in front for the first time and no sooner had the ball landed in the Kingsholm hospitality boxes than Campsall blew for no-side.

King's decisive intervention was sheer manna from heaven for those who admire the degree of subtlety he brings to the No 10 shirt. Brain power had been conspicuous by its absence until he emerged from the replacements' dug-out six minutes into the second half and in a trice, he made the rest look like so many intellectual pygmies. He was characteristically self- effacing about his role in the match-winning try -"I just ran between two props and kept going" - but few others seemed capable of running between two lamp posts.

"Alex was very, very low after the summer tour with England," admitted Melville, who had seen his young playmaker exposed by 15 Maoris on a grisly night in Rotorua. "He could have walked away then and there; when you've been lambasted by the southern hemisphere, by the press, by your own management and sent home, you're not likely to be on much of a high, are you?

"But he came back, recognised shortcomings in his game and got down to work. I'm delighted for him, because that was very physical out there - precisely the kind of environment so many people accuse him of being unable to handle."

Gloucester: Penalties Mapletoft 4. Wasps: Try Green; Conversion Logan; Penalties Logan 2.

Gloucester: C Catling; A Lumsden, R Tombs, S Mannix, P Saint-Andre; M Mapletoft, S Benton; A Windo, P Greening (C Fortey, h-t), P Vickery, R Fidler, D Sims (capt; M Cornwell, 72), S Ojomoh, S Devereux, N Carter.

Wasps: J Ufton (A King, 46); S Roiser, L Scrase, R Henderson, K Logan; J Lewsey, A Gomarsall (M Friday, 66); D Molloy, D Macer (T Letoa, 46), W Green, M Weedon (capt), A Reed (S Shaw, 53), L Dallaglio, J Worsley, P Volley.

Referee: B Campsall (Yorkshire).

Should you let your kids play rugby? Review, page 9