Rugby Union: Luger thanks Larder right down to his vital fingertips

PROFESSIONAL RUGBY union has seen an explosion in the number of specialists employed to cater to international players' every need. But until now a vital one has been overlooked. More important than the coaches, the medical team, the kit man and the sports psychologist is the manicurist.

There is every chance, after viewing the match video, that the England coach Clive Woodward will issue strict instructions that players fingernails are to be pared, rasped, varnished even, but never bitten or even clipped close.

While the bulk of the England supporters among the sell-out crowd at Twickenham had chewed their fingernails to the quick during an enthralling match, it was just as well as that Dan Luger still had his intact. Without them England might have been the ones shedding the tears and South Africa celebrating a world record.

The England winger, who played a crucial role in Jeremy Guscott's try, had an even more important hand in preventing the Springboks from scoring one right at the death. When Werner Swanepoel, the replacement scrum-half, spun out a pass to Stefan Terblanche it was Luger who managed to intercept, getting enough contact to send the ball to ground.

"It's all a bit of a blur," Luger admitted. "But as I remember they tapped and went at the penalty. I was tracking back. I knew we were outnumbered and I was aware of Terblanche coming up fast. I was waiting to see what happened. The pass went out and I stuck out my hand. Luckily I hadn't cut my fingernails, because the ball hit them and went to ground."

Luger owes as much to another specialist Phil Larder for being in the right place at the right time. Larder has been drilling England in defence for the last year and reckons it was because Luger was concentrating on his positional play and getting back behind the ball that the threat was snuffed out.

Larder praised his charges. "It is a tremendous achievement for England to have conceded just one try in 160 minutes against two of the best sides in the world. It is something the boys can be justly proud of.

"I think the fact that the majority of our games are going to be played here at Twickenham means we can go into the World Cup next year with a very positive mind. We have just taken on the best teams in the world and we've beaten one of them and if we had been less naive last week we would have beaten the other, as it was Australia only beat us by a single point.

"Come the World Cup we will play better, we will defend better, we'll run the football better, we'll be far more tactically aware and we'll be playing at Twickenham. And that crowd, the atmosphere. It's like Manchester United playing at Old Trafford."

The shift in emphasis over the last month that the England squad has been together has been significant. Larder said: "In that time we have spent almost 50 per cent of our training time working on our defence, where previously it would have been 10 per cent."

And defence is not just about putting in tackles and making them count. You have to get into position to make the tackle, anticipate the direction of attack by the opponents, a host of factors. And it should involve all 15, as it did against the world champions."

Prop Darren Garforth was made man of the match and given a Krugerrand as much for his defensive play as for his skill in the tight as the South African front-five effort was all but neutralised. His club Leicester also benefit from Larder's wisdom, and Garforth said: "Phil's input has been awesome. His work with us is starting to bear fruit. He gets us thinking.

"It's all in the mind, this defence; it's all about organisation. In all my years in rugby I've not encountered any ideas like his."

The admiration and respect is mutual. Larder said: "Over the last year I think there has been a 100 per cent improvement in England's defence. When I took over the front row was a little bit iffy. Now though they are defending really well, particularly Jason Leonard and Garforth, who was awesome today."

But there is no satisfying a perfectionist. Larder said: "By the World Cup we should not be looking at tackle counts, but rather at keeping the missed tackle count down in single figures. There is a lot of room for improvement still."

THE RECORD RUN AND HOW IT ENDED

1997

Australia Pretoria 61-22

Italy Bologna 62-31

France Lyon 36-32

France Paris 52-10

England Twickenham 29-11

Scotland Murrayfield 68-10

1998

Ireland Bloemfontein 37-13

Ireland Pretoria 33-0

Wales Pretoria 96-13

England Cape Town 18-0

Australia Perth 14-13

New Zealand Wellington 13-3

New Zealand Durban 24-23

Australia Johannesburg 29-15

Wales Wembley 28-20

Scotland Murrayfield 35-10

Ireland Lansdowne Road 27-13

England Twickenham 7-13

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