Rugby Union: Safety catch for Rowell

Chris Rea argues that England and their coach need a wider perspective
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The prose has been as purple as the five-minute passage which lifted Wales to the sublime at Murrayfield last Saturday and made the Scots look ridiculous. Two great Scotts and an artful dodger and overnight the bread of heaven is back on the shelves, enough to feed an entire nation starved of success.

But the expectations of a new dawn for Welsh rugby have been through the shredder before. It is just three years since Wales won the Five Nations' Championship, a triumph which preceded one of the most barren spell in the country's history. Murrayfield was without doubt a positive step toward rehabilitation but no more than that. What Wales do have this time round, and it is more than most at the moment, is a finely blended threequarter line, witheringly destructive in the tackle and sharply penetrative in attack, a top-class scrum-half and a resourceful and resilient full- back who is without equal in Britain as an accumulator of points. What they still lack is a scrummage to scare the pants off the big boys and a consistently productive line-out, although last Saturday -when the statistics giving the Scots the advantage proved to be damned lies - the Welsh line-out provided ball of infinitely better quality than some of the dross which rained down on Gary Armstrong.

It is also true that Wales were markedly superior at the scrummage, but the quality of the opposition must be taken into account and in this area the Scots, as they have done for some time, are finding life very hard. England, France and even Ireland will present an altogether stiffer challenge.

The pride, at least, is returning to this Welsh side, if not yet the haughty self-assurance which springs from continuous success. There is an impish arrogance about Arwel Thomas which is refreshing, especially from a player in such a position of influence. Until, however, he attains the universal admiration reserved for players such as Barry John and Phil Bennett, he should be warned that triumphalism, or even the suggestion of it, can be a double-edged sword.

Right now, however, it is the Scots who have a thumping headache. Their plans are in ruins and despite the fact that they have belatedly switched their most potent weapon to the position from which he can do most damage, there is a limit to what Gregor Townsend can achieve, given the calibre of the players around him. If Townsend doesn't launch the offensive himself against England at Twickenham next Saturday then it is difficult to know who else will. The midfield backs lack the whiplash acceleration to embarrass England's tightly marshalled defence and Rowen Shepherd, who must somehow put the memory of his horrible day against Wales behind him, is better suited to solid defence than to flaring attack. There is speed out on the wings but it is what happens in between them that really matters.

The Scottish pack will at least benefit from the presence of a genuine open-side flanker, although Ian Smith's lack of top- class competition so far this season is hardly the best preparation for the task ahead, especially as he seems likely to spend most of it on the back foot.

The England manager, Jack Rowell, true to his conservative nature, has played safe. He has picked a side who, if they have a mind to, can crush the opposition without venturing too far from the front door. But then any of the three selections announced by England for next week look capable of beating the Scots in their present plight.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this season has been the transformation wrought at Leicester. The cult worship of the tight five plus Dean Richards has been replaced by the warm appreciation of a game which fully embraces the diverse strength and skills of the entire XV. It is 20 years since a midfield back occupied centre stage at Welford Road. Will Greenwood's form this season has been a revelation, yet no one has had to work harder than Greenwood to prove it.

It is to Bob Dwyer's lasting credit that he has spotted the young centre's potential so quickly and that he has adjusted the team's tactics to accommodate him, along with the exciting talents of Austin Healey and Neil Back. It is no coincidence that, in their recently liberated state, all three are playing at the top of their form.

Rowell, on the other hand, prefers to imprison his more exotic birds in a gilded cage or, even more frustratingly, on the replacements' bench.

His selection for the Calcutta Cup was, of course, dictated by a number of factors - one of them being the paramount need for a goal kicker. For that reason alone the selection of Paul Grayson was an almost inevitable consequence of the decision to drop Mike Catt. At least Grayson will have in front of him and, one assumes, at the appropriate times alongside him, a specialist open-side flanker which is more than Catt ever had.

Not that I think it mattered one jot who Rowell picked in the back row. England's selection is no more geared to playing the game adopted by the southern hemisphere powers than it was at the beginning of the season. The opportunities to mix and match and to experiment with players such as Alex King, Phil Greening, Healey and Greenwood came and went with the three pre-Christmas internationals. Rowell steadfastly ignored them all.

What he does expect, however, is that his side will beat Scotland. If it does not, then he knows that this will be his last season as England's coach.

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