Rugby Union: Rodber ready to take the A train: Chris Rea reflects on a torrid week for the All Blacks and assesses England's options

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The Independent Online
AT THE end of a day when the All Blacks had been accused of everything from primeval brutality to plodding monotony and had conceded almost three times as many penalties as the opposition at Anfield, Laurie Mains, the tourists' coach, made straight for the referee's dressing-room. More blood on the carpet? No, Mains had wanted to congratulate Jim Fleming on his handling of the game. He had understood all the decisions and had agreed with every one of them.

The majority of decisions against the All Blacks were for offside. There was one instance of imprudent use of the larynx (verbal dissent) and one of improper use of the boot (stamping) involving Mark Allen, although in this case it was a more pawing than a raking and Allen apologised immediately.

It was, in fact, a tour de force by Fleming who, since taking such authoritative charge of the opening match in the 1991 World Cup which set the benchmark for referees in the competition, has maintained a standard higher than most of his colleagues on the international panel. Fleming is something of a rarity in that he commands the respect and trust of players in both hemispheres.

'I have refereed a lot in the southern hemisphere and in many ways find it much easier,' he said. 'Teams in New Zealand and Australia are more interested in moving the ball away from the set piece than they are in the close-quarter exchanges which so dominate the game on this side of the world and which are so difficult to referee.'

Herein lies the nub of the argument which has inspired reams of pious prose from the righteously indignant in the aftermath of the de Glanville affair at Redruth. The President of the Rugby Football Union has spoken of the need to reach agreement on the interpretation of the laws. But it is not so much a question of interpretation as application. Can we seriously believe that the stifling ambition of the South and South-West in getting as many players as possible on the ground between the ball and the All Blacks was tactically less reprehensible than the desire to win the ball for creative use?

Thuggery must, of course, be condemned and its perpetrators punished. But the injury to de Glanville was not inflicted with malice aforethought and I have yet to speak to a player who believes that it was. The All Blacks are not, by nature, that way inclined. They would not even make the premier division in the International League of Violence and having played in all the major rugby playing countries - including France and Argentina - I can speak with some authority.

If the week has been an unnerving one for the All Blacks, it has been hardly less fraught for England's selectors. Not only have they lost de Glanville from their squad but they cannot now consider Andy Blackmore for the international at Twickenham. This is of even greater concern given Martin Bayfield's steady but painfully slow progress towards fitness. The after effects of a neck injury as serious as the one Bayfield received in New Zealand must not be treated by anything other than time and expert care.

In the very likely event that Bayfield will lose his race, the selectors have few options remaining to them. No one has worked more valiantly for an international recall or more fully deserves the chance than Nigel Redman, a model of reliable consistency over the years, but that would mean England playing with two specialist front jumpers. Martin Johnson, one assumes, would be the one to switch to the middle. Tim Rodber, so impressive at Anfield last Tuesday, is no stranger to the second row but this might be too much of a gamble. In any case he is seen as a back-row forward and the selectors have the opportunity to assess him today as the No 8 in the England A side to play the tourists at Gateshead.

This game should settle Neil Back's fate. If the selectors are not content with a knocker- down in the tackle but want a knocker-back, they will wish to accommodate Rodber, although it is hard to imagine a finer blend than a back-row triumvirate of Back, Ben Clarke and Richards - a flyer, a forager and a fortress.

Today's match also offers Stuart Barnes a first opportunity and possibly a last chance to keep his England place at fly- half, a last chance, definitely, for Jonathan Callard at full- back and a chance in a different position for Ian Hunter.

Hunter may be considered the next best thing to gelignite in the attempted demolition of Tuigamala, but it is asking a lot of a player whose shoulder has so recently been rebuilt to withstand the force of the world's most intimidatingly powerful runner.

ENGLAND A: J Callard (Bath); I Hunter (Northampton), D Hopley (Wasps), M Catt (Bath), P Hull (Bristol); S Barnes (Bath), K Bracken (Bristol); G Rowntree (Leicester), G Dawe (Bath), A Mullins (Harlequins), N Redman (Bath), D Sims (Gloucester), J Hall (Bath, capt), T Rodber (Northampton), N Back (Leicester).

NEW ZEALAND: J Timu (Otago); E Clarke (Auckland), F Bunce (North Harbour), M Cooper (Waikato), V Tuigamala (Auckland); M Ellis, S Forster (Otago); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown (Auckland), S Gordon (Waikato), I Jones (North Auckland), B Larsen (North Harbour), A Pene (Otago), Z Brooke (Auckland).

Referee: R Megson (Scotland).