Rugby Union: Lessons from the class of '88

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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS like yesterday that London blazed a trail for English rugby by whipping the Wallabies. It was 1988. With Will Carling their callow captain, England went on to beat Australia too and the five years between then and today's New Zealand tour opener at Twickenham have been among the most successful - certainly the most profitable - English rugby has ever enjoyed.

The possibility is remote that London's class of '93, even with 10 full internationals, can have the same galvanic effect. In fact you can precisely identify the autumn day on which London ran and ran and ran, and won 21-10, as the point at which the game in England at last cast off its mantle of failure.

The circumstances now are utterly different: not least London, by their captain's own admission, are not the side they were in '88. The opposition is rather better, too, and the fond hope that the divisions can somehow soften up the All Blacks for England is undermined by the bizarre itinerary which after five matches south of the border takes the tourists to Scotland for a fortnight before returning for the Test at Twickenham.

'The divisional sides certainly caused the Australians problems and that's the aim for this tour as well: that we cause the All Blacks the same kind of problems,' Rob Andrew, London's captain, said. Would that it were so simple.

In no sense, for instance, are the divisions comparable to the New Zealand provincial sides who messed the Lions about during the summer. They come together constantly, whereas all London have had is their unsatisfactory 22-21 win over the North last Saturday.

'Auckland, Waikato and Otago are basically club sides,' Andrew said. 'Although we are drawn mainly from two clubs, we haven't had that experience together and although we have some advantage because it's the first game of the tour most of their players were playing in their national championship right up to a fortnight ago.'

Richard Langhorn's withdrawal, Dean Ryan's consequent move to lock and Chris Sheasby's insertion at No 8 do not quite accord with the plan which necessitated the crash-tackling and general physicality of Rory Jenkins more than the creativity of Lawrence Dallaglio at open-side flanker. But by opting for Jenkins's rough-and-tumble the London selectors gave a fair indication of how they see things going.

So the thought that this team might try to emulate Dick Best's upstart strategy of 1988 by throwing caution to the north wind that blew down Twickenham yesterday is pleasantly romantic but entirely unrealistic, even if it can work wonders for you. Three years later Best became England coach.

'The key question is whether the players put right what was not good enough last week,' Andrew added. 'Technically, we have certain things to sharpen up on but I think the problem was attitude.' Which is to say minds were focused not on the job in hand up north but the next assignment down south.

In Andrew's perennial duel with Stuart Barnes for the England stand-off place, this game will be critical. But it may have come too late for Jeff Probyn, though the fact that the Midlands have picked another 37-year-old prop, Gary Pearce, to face the All Blacks indicates the premium selectors everywhere place on a stable scrum.

In other words, some things never change. But what has changed in the five years since London's day of days is rugby's popularity. That 1988 game attracted 12,300 - which might have been a decent crowd but for being swallowed up in Twickenham's vastness. For today's game, the rebuilt ground, vaster still, is sold out. An astounding total of 56,400 spectators will generate receipts of pounds 600,000, at which rate the new north stand will be paid off in no time at all.

LONDON: H Davies (Wasps); T Underwood (Leicester), D Hopley (Wasps), W Carling (Harlequins), C Oti; R Andrew (capt), S Bates (Wasps); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), A Snow (Harlequins), D Ryan, M Greenwood (Wasps), C Sheasby (Harlequins); R Jenkins (London Irish).

NEW ZEALAND: M Cooper (Waikato); V Tuigamala (Auckland), F Bunce (North Harbour), M Berry (Wellington), J Wilson; S Bachop, S Forster (Otago); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown (Auckland), S Gordon (Waikato), I Jones (North Auckland), J Joseph, A Pene (Otago), P Henderson (Southland).

Referee: P Thomas (France).

(Photograph omitted)

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