Rugby Union: Leslie hands out a lesson in vision

Mark Evans says England need a tactician to match the kilted Kiwi
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The Independent Online
IT STARTED so promisingly. For the best part of an hour England looked in complete control - their game was centred around five- and six- man line-outs which were used to launch a series of running plays with pivots, inside runners and circle balls much in evidence.

From the first minute, when they ran back the restart through four phases before kicking, there was no mistaking their intentions - England were going to run the ball. Their first try was a gem, with Richard Hill making the initial break, Scotland scrambling the ball to touch but then an innovative line-out play setting up the position from which Tim Rodber blasted his way across the line. When this was followed by a beautifully timed pass from Neil Back to put Dan Luger over after a number of mini rucks it began to look like a semi-opposed training run.

Yet this dominance was frittered away because England had no variation. As with most things in rugby the problem could be traced to the set-piece. England never managed to control the angle of scrummage, so Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio were stopped well before the gain line. In the line-out they kept delivering ball off the top with no attempt to drive the Scots back. When it worked, as in the first 20 minutes, it looked great.

However, they became predictable and there was no one willing or able to introduce change. England's attacks became more lateral and this led to an increasing number of turnovers. Not until a quarter of an hour before the end were the crowd treated to a line-out drive - ironically England lost the ball in the ensuring melee.

This determination to play the game in a particular way was best demonstrated when England refused to kick two relatively straightforward penalties when they were only three points ahead. Some might call it confidence but it looked suspiciously like arrogance.

Scotland themselves had needed a smash and grab raid by Eirc Peters on Matt Dawson which resulted in a quick interplay of passes finished off by Alan Tait to keep in the hunt. Their scrummage was never in trouble but they tried to be far too clever early on and wasted their first two attacking positions by over-complicating things in the backs.

Such profligacy was particularly strange since the first time they bombed Nick Beal he obligingly dropped the ball. However they were in no great hurry to repeat this simple procedure and all afternoon their chasing of kicks was uncharacteristically lacklustre.

Still on the debit side this match showed that Kenny Logan is not an international goal kicker. You cannot afford to pass up the number of opportunities he did. Elusive and threatening he may be but he will never be a points machine. Equally worrying was the lack of authority on the right flank where Cameron Murray and Glen Metcalfe looked desperately shaky.

Nevertheless at half-time they were still in the hunt. But it was not until Tait's second try that their whole game was galvanised - suddenly it was a real contest and the further the match went on the more Scotland looked likely to win it. Scott Murray, who had an outstanding game, and his cohorts eked out more ball, the referee gave them one or two dubious penalties and all of a sudden Gregor Townsend and John Leslie were running the show. The kilted Kiwi had an excellent game. He ran astutely and rarely, if ever, wasted a ball; his tackle count looked to be very high but perhaps his most important contribution was the influence he appeared to exert over Townsend. Now that he has a talented option-taker outside him he seems to have improved his own decision making - although his kicking out of hand still needs to improve.

Tactically, England need to realise that if you show your hand too early and have no plan B then your opponents may catch you out. It was the absence of their traditional scrummaging, driving strengths which was most alarming. Their game needs to become more direct in order to allow the more dynamic aspects to flourish.

Mark Evans is director of rugby at Saracens.