Rugby Union: Limited company with supply-side deficit

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The Independent Online
JOEL DUME, the referee in Cardiff last Saturday, was not the first, nor will he be the last, to take the line of least resistance. He clearly believed that the line-out was ungovernable. He is not alone in that either. But it was crucial because Tony Copsey and Gareth Llewellyn, despite their problems in the second and third quarters, gained enough control in the first and fourth to keep Wales in the game.

England's deployment of Martin Bayfield principally as front jumper will have to be reviewed. We will not see the best of Bayfield until he has played at No 4. Be that as it may, England finished up ahead in the line-out, ahead in the scrummage and, when Dewi Morris was in control, a nose in front in the loose, despite the curiously uneven contributions from their back row.

The weight of criticism, and now the axe, have therefore fallen on the backs. Rob Andrew has said that he is perplexed by the decision and if that is the case then one can hardly imagine what Ian Hunter must be feeling.

Three tries in his first three internationals and a notable defensive action against France should have been enough to insulate him against the selectorial vagaries, particularly as the malfunction in England's back-line began, not on the wings but in the midfield. Moreover, Hunter has scored the only try that England have manufactured in their two championship matches so far, albeit one which, unless Jon Webb spent his five days in Lanzarote aiming for the posts, was a complete fluke.

England were at least two tries better than Wales on Saturday. They lost one to a refereeing decision which, despite the ambiguity in the wording of the law, was, in the judgement of most top referees, an error. Another chance went astray when a four-man overlap and half the width of the field was not enough for England, but would have been easy-peasy for the Tooting Bec minis. France, with one man over and two yards of space managed a try with a bit to spare against Scotland.

England's midfield cannot escape criticism, although the problems are a lot deeper than that. They spluttered and fidgeted, but at no time did they appear to fret. Perhaps they should have done. After his first taste of international rugby against France, Martin Johnson made a perfectly innocent yet revealing remark. He had been struck by the overwhelming calm of the England players as they lined up behind their line before Didier Camberabero kicked France into the lead. Now there are times when coolness and composure are desirable and even necessary qualities, but there are also occasions when the verbal equivalent of a boot up the backside is the only remedy against incipient complacency.

England got away with it against France, but not in Cardiff where, remarkably, they were still confident of scoring in the two and a half minutes of injury-time they believed were remaining. The fact is that England are tactically becalmed. Stuart Barnes, they hope, will be the one to blow some fresh air into their sails and get them moving again. I wonder.

He will certainly attack the Scottish loose forwards next Saturday, will probe the blind-side from a variety of angles and will make every effort to liberate his threequarters. Assuming that he will want to run things his way he will also be calling the shots. With such a weight of expectation on him it is a massive responsibility, all the more onerous given the inconsistency of the England forwards.

The English are not natural ruckers - much too brutal - and this season without Paul Ackford and Dean Richards they have been ineffective maulers. Unable to clear the defensive minefields laid by their opponents, they have seldom managed to deliver quick, clean possession to their half- backs. Both Morris and Andrew have suffered as a result.

There have been too many negative voices. The laws, not the opposition, have been identified as being the greatest threat to England's continuing supremacy. But now those who have been pursuing England in vain for the past couple of years are beginning to scent blood.

France, Wales and Scotland are better sides than they were last season and Ireland, surely, cannot be any worse. France, in fact, are just a couple of positions short of being a very fine side. Wales, as Alan Davies has been at great pains to publicise, are not in that bracket yet. Last Saturday they offered a well-marshalled defence and flaming passion, quite magnificent on the day, but unsustainable throughout a championship season. Murrayfield, where the best-laid plans can often come unstuck in the helter-skelter pace of the Scottish game, will pose a different set of problems.

In the meantime, however, Wales have every right to bask in the glow of victory. It was an enthralling contest, the exchanges ferocious but commendably free from viciousness or spite. The only sour note was struck by BBC Wales's pre-match trailing of the event which portrayed Jon Webb as a fumbling incompetent. It is not the BBC's role to be so blatantly partisan. It was cheap and distasteful and should not be repeated.