Rugby Union: Now the wonder boy has to be a man

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IN AN age of ever increasing uniformity and predictability, Clive Woodward is determinedly pursuing his reputation as a mould-breaker. Ever since the establishment of the squad system, the element of surprise has been almost completely removed from team announcements, which makes Victor Ubogu's retrieval from the scrapyard by the man who had appeared to deposit him there all the more refreshing.

With Woodward's England you never quite know what you are going to get and opponents don't like that. Woodward's smart about-turn on Ubogu was not, of course, inspired by a mischievous desire to leave egg on the faces of those pundits who had so confidently predicted his World Cup squad. It was driven by the pragmatic desire for flexibility and durability at the set piece.

England, more than any other of the leading countries, depend for their well-being and prosperity on the set piece and whilst there is nothing to suggest that they are likely to be seriously inconvenienced in that area of the game, there is no reason to believe that they will return to the exalted heights of the past when they held undisputed mastery at the scrums and line-outs. It is some time now since the English tight forwards dictated terms in the scrummage, certainly against the better sides, and even the Canadians, so fiercely competitive in everything but some way short of the highest class, retained their shape at Twickenham last week.

It is the line-out, however, which holds the key to their success and here again England have much work to do. It is ever more noticeable that an increasing amount of ball is being taken against the team throwing in. A number of ploys have been devised to disrupt the jumpers and to distract the throwers, and if a throw is marginally off line the advantage is likely to be lost.

Against the Australians during the summer Richard Cockerill had the greatest difficulty in locating his jumpers and last week England's throwing was again not up to scratch. This in turn put an additional strain on Matt Dawson, whose decision-making at times left both colleagues and spectators baffled.

A relatively simple throw to the line-out, a fraction wide of the mark, and every link in the chain weakened. For too long last week England were vainly searching for the continuity and fluency which Woodward wants, and had they been in opposition to the Australians, whose defence in the Bledisloe Cup match earlier that day had reached celestial heights, they would not have survived. To have even the remotest chance of winning the World Cup England will require to achieve these levels, which cannot be attained on the back of slipshod basics.

That includes the kicking. Kicking for goal, kicking from the restarts and kicking from the hand. The first two England performed with reasonable efficiency against Canada, but neither Dawson nor Jonny Wilkinson came close to acceptable accuracy in kicking from the hand. The decision to boot away hard-won possession has always been a hard one, as any half-back who has been verbally savaged by his tired and emotional forwards will tell you, but in the modern game it is critical.

In Sydney last week I cannot recall one occasion when the Australians wasted a kick. If the rolling ball behind them was not putting the fear of God into the All Black defence then it was the kick hoisted with such accuracy that the Australians had a better than even chance of regaining possession. Either way the Australians' tactical kicking was devastatingly effective.

England are not yet in this league. Kyran Bracken is a better tactical kicker than Dawson and Wilkinson is, we know, a superbly gifted footballer whose best days are ahead of him. But how far ahead? England need him to be at his peak in a month, just as the All Blacks required Andrew Mehrtens to display a maturity beyond his years four years ago in South Africa.

Mehrtens came through on that occasion and England must hope that Wilkinson can do the same. Rob Andrew, Wilkinson's mentor at Newcastle and one of his most ardent admirers, is determined that his protege's talents should be nurtured and developed on the allotment rather than in the greenhouse and will point to the fact that his own acceptance as a fully fledged international-class player was a long time in coming. But that is a luxury which Woodward doesn't have.

Wilkinson has so much already to offer. He has an astute rugby brain, he can pass with considerable accuracy, speed and, as we saw at Twickenham last week, length, and he has noticeably sharpened up his running speed over the first 10 to 15 yards. He can also kick. From dead-ball situations and when he is aiming at a couple of posts and a crossbar, there are times when it is possible to believe that he will never miss. But on the run and with a moving target in front of him he misfires too often for comfort. Against the American Eagles and Canada his waywardness went for the most part unpunished, but there will be no escape with the likes of Roff, Burke, Cullen and Lomu lying in wait next month.

Just watching the ferocity of the collisions between the two superpowers last week was painful enough, and the comfort zone for those given a nanosecond to perform to the most exacting standards will be terrifying small. There is still a lot to do and time is short.