Rugby Union: Perry's day of atonement as fury turns to farce

Andrew Longmore at Twickenham sees a reprieved full-back turn a spill into a thrill
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The Independent Online
LIKE boxing, rugby has a surprising and unnerving capacity for embarrassment as well as thrill. The precise moment that a bravura England performance turned into rampant exhibitionism and total humiliation is hard to pinpoint. Jeremy Guscott's back-flip pass in the second half, the way Matt Dawson staggered to the line untouched by Welsh hand, the exaggerated dive with which Austin Healey scored England's sixth. Years of passionate battle turned into nothing more sinister than a midweek testimonial, which it could well be for more than a few of the Welsh side.

After Dawson's spectacular try, Scott Gibbs stood arms akimbo under the posts, hoping beyond hope that he would be relieved of his duties before the end, while Arwel Thomas enquired with a touch of desperation from a touch judge how much longer their ordeal was to last. Whether the Five Nationswill thrive on massacres like this remains an open question, one which will not trouble the conscience of Clive Woodward, the England coach, as he surveys his first victory at the sixth attempt.

After an insanely tough fixture list before Christmas and a lacklustre forfeiture of a Grand Slam a fortnight ago, it was time, as the captain Lawrence Dallaglio had admitted, for glimpses of potential to be transformed into consistent excellence.

Like an expensive thoroughbred, England had been dropped down the handicap, through Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and France and needed to stretch their legs over more pedestrian opposition. By the finish, the gap between the sides could be measured in hemispheres rather than countries. A "distance", in racing terms.

The one blot on a field day for statisticians and the England backs was the failure of Guscott to score a try. Of all the many stats, that is probably the strangest of all. Guscott had led out the England team in his 50th Test and turned to acknowledge the standing ovation from all corners of the ground. He was a handful all afternoon, bypassing his Lions co-centre, Scott Gibbs, with ease and profiting from the space gifted to him by England's imperious back row. You would have bet your house on a score, such is the man's sense of timing. But Gibbs and Jenkins prevented the final indignity as Guscott cut inside but was unable to ground the ball. It was the closest the Welsh centre came to cornering his opposite number all day.

Matt Perry too deserved to mark his return with a try. Dropped by Bath, then, unforgiveably, by England for the defeat in France, the young full- back, his trials, tribulations and triumphs, became a metaphor for the whole England side. After 27 minutes, Perry must have wondered whether the bench was not the safest place, after all.

His confidence could not have been at high tide before the start, a point firmly understood by Arwel Thomas, who peppered the England full-back with towering kicks. The first two were safely gathered, the third, under pressure from a thundering 15-and-a-half stone of Gibbs, squeezed through his grasp and ricocheted off a shoulder pad for Allan Bateman to score. Perry looked what he is, a boy; a slight, forlorn, figure and it was a condemnation of England's on-field man management that, in a subsequent break of play, not one of the senior England players came over to help the young man through his misery. Guscott was closest. Perhaps it was calculated ignorance. If so, it worked a treat.

Moments later, Perry bounced up from a full-scale hit by Gibbs to launch an immediate counter and with the deftest of left-foot chips over the heads of the Welsh backs set up the penalty from which Neil Back scored the second of England's burst of three tries in six minutes. He should have had a try all of his own just before half-time but turned inside with the line at his mercy, a reflection of morale not yet fully recovered. England have found a young full-back of perception, pace and strength. He should be left untouched. So should England. Bring on the World Cup.

Tim Glover, page 23