Rugby Union: No danger of kicking the habit

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The Independent Online
ARISE, Sir Rob] Before that happy event comes about, however, I should like to offer Andrew my apologies. I had earlier suggested that for the Paris match he should be replaced by Stuart Barnes.

It is, I know, possible to argue that England would have won more handsomely if Barnes had been at outside-half. They might even have scored a try. Such speculations are profitless. The truth is that England would not have won at all if it had not been for Andrew.

Allow the prodigious tackling, grant the tremendous back row, concede the calm of David Pears, the canniness of Dewi Morris: if Andrew (who did more than his fair share of tackling, too) had not been in such near-perfect form with the boot, Saturday's result would not have been so satisfactory for England.

This match, indeed the whole Five Nations' Championship so far, fortifies one of my pet theories: that any boy ambitious of fame either as a rugby full-back or as an outside-half should spend part of his time playing football. In so doing he would pick up kicking skills which he would not learn if he confines himself to what is still misleadingly called the handling code.

In the old days, rugby-playing schools would foolishly try to prohibit this dual approach. Today they would be grateful for any interest at all shown in any team game.

I do not know whether Andrew played any football in his youth - as, say, Barry John and Tony Ward did. He is certainly a natural ball-player. He could probably earn part of his living playing county cricket if he wanted to (at Cambridge he won a Blue for cricket as well as for rugby).

All the crucial figures of the competition have been kickers. Jonathan Callard did England proud against Scotland, was unlucky against Ireland and was then dropped in favour of Pears owing to his deficiencies as an attacker.

Eric Elwood could have changed the shape of the championship if his final kick for Ireland against Wales had been six inches to the right.

Gavin Hastings's emotional breakdown after the England match - which was perfectly understandable, and nothing to be ashamed of - owed, I suspect, as much to his own failures with the boot as to Callard's final success.

Thierry Lacroix had a Boys Own first match against Ireland, as a running centre and as a place kicker. Then (as they say in Ammanford) it went to his head. He announced that he was the iron - or it may have been the ice - man. Nothing, he announced, disturbed his tranquility. He possessed utter confidence. Hubris was succeeded by nemesis in two cruel stages. France could have beaten Wales and England if Lacroix had been in the form he showed against Ireland.

Is it, I wonder, wholly coincidental that the team who are at the top of the table - and are travelling to Twickenham in 11 days' time for the championship and the Grand Slam - also possess in Neil Jenkins the most consistent kicker in the competition?

Alan Davies perceived Jenkins's abilities in this direction straight away. This is why he persisted in including him in the side as a centre, even when he seemed to have settled on Adrian Davies as the new outside-half. It annoyed Scott Gibbs, who had to move to outside-centre to accommodate Jenkins on the inside.

Gibbs will not be at Twickenham in any position. Incidentally, we read a good deal in the press about Jeremy Guscott's persistent injury and how his absence diminishes England's try-scoring potential. We hear much less about Gibbs's withdrawal and its effect on the Welsh side. But then, Wales have scored six tries to England's none.

It promises to be a fascinating match. Davies has announced that Wales intend to move the ball at speed; indeed, to do everything at speed. It will be a keen contest between Scott Quinnell and Steve Ojomoh - though I have yet to have it explained to me why England persist in playing Ojomoh, a natural No 6, at No 8, and Tim Rodber, a natural No 8 at No 6.

But alas] The real competition will be between Mr Jenkins and Sir Rob.

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