During the past couple of decades the back row has emerged as the elite division. The crack troops who are first out of the trenches and first to reach the enemy lines. The name of Peter Winterbottom may not be as familiar in the average British household as that of Will Carling, yet over the years Winterbottom has produced performances out of all proportion to his fame. It is also true that loose forwards can have an influence on the game which is wildly disproportionate to their numerical strength.
Throughout the 1980s and into the present decade the Scots have survived largely on their loose forward strength in tandem with two pairs of exceptionally talented half-backs, first Laidlaw and Rutherford and then Armstrong and Chalmers. Earlier still, the Springboks who embarked on that ill-starred tour of Britain 23 years ago were often spared from embarrassing defeat by their back- row triumvirate of Greyling, Ellis and Bedford, a rich and potent blend of valour, aggression, speed and craft. But since the almost makeshift harmony of those days, the game and its strategies have moved on and the new breed of loose forward is expected to be the embodiment of all those qualities. The physical and mental demands on him are greater than ever before yet, perversely, the reward for his efforts may be less obvious and distinctly less glamorous. A fetcher and a carrier he will still be but his role may well be a more subservient one as the creative support player rather than the gang leader. Furthermore, the defensive favours granted to loose forwards under the old laws at the set piece are likely to be curbed.
The question now is whether or not Richards, England's most capped No 8, will be able to adapt to this new game or, indeed, whether at this stage he even wants to. Throughout his distinguished career Richards has played the game on his own terms and by his own rules. Instinctively unconventional, he holds a unique place in the English game and it is doubtful if we shall ever see his like again. The last person you would choose to take with you into the jungle is very often the first you would like to see when you come out the other side. Richards is very definitely more of a jungle companion than a dinner-table guest. Roger Uttley, whose latest book, Winning Rugby, is a most readable blend of instruction and anecdote, rates Richards as England's most influential forward throughout their steady progress to the summit of the world game. 'If I were playing now, Richards would be the first choice in my pack,' Uttley says. 'But just consider what sort of a player he might have been had he trained even half as enthusiastically as he plays.'
Richards never has wholeheartedly embraced anything as arcane as aerobic exercises and presumably he never will. For most of this season Richards, a displaced person at lock forward, has looked a sorry figure. He is manifestly uncomfortable in the second row but typically has put club loyalty before personal desire. His most effective game this season was against England last month when he flourished in the dense thicket of the rucks and mauls. It was a display which has probably gained Richards an extension of his national service because Ben Clarke, who played at No 8 for England that day, clearly cannot yet meet the requirements of the position at international level.
So England's back row against Canada is likely to be Richards, Winterbottom and Rodber, although with Clarke, Dean Ryan and Matt Greenwood, whose displays for Wasps in recent weeks have confirmed him as a top-class forward, there is no shortage of claimants to Richards' position.
The persistent rumours of Dewi Morris's imminent departure to rugby league must be of greatest concern to England's selectors at the moment. In combination with his back row, Morris's assaults on opposition defences last season were crucial to England's success. There is currently no scrum-half in the country, of similar style, to replace him and, for all Richard Hill's many qualities, England's game plan does, to a very large extent, revolve around Morris.
There is promising talk of England pushing back the frontiers and expanding their game, and they are unlikely to get a better opportunity to experiment than in Saturday's match against the Canadians. The Canadians' hopes of competing on anything like level terms have surely been wrecked by the absence of so many of their World Cup players. Only seven of the side which played so valiantly against the All Blacks are in the squad. In the circumstances the decision to field an England XV as close as possible to full strength may be seen as taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But after the nut comes the brick wall.Reuse content