RUGBY UNION: Sweet and sour grapes

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The Independent Online
The most deleterious influence on rugby during the past six months has been the World Cup. We cannot stop talking about it. Everything is related to it. It has dominated the Five Nations' Championship. England's performance on Saturday was judged not by what it was: highly competent but somewhat uninspiring. It was judged by the clues it provided to England's prospects in South Africa. The verdict here was: good, but a lot of sharpening- up to do.

We do not know how things will look in 10 weeks' time. All sorts of things can happen, among them injuries. Bath, Harlequins, Leicester, Northampton and Wasps all have pressing engagements with one another over the next six weeks, the first of them on Saturday between Harlequins and Northampton.

Instead I should like to look back at the Five Nations season. Ireland seemed to go out of their way to dissipate the admittedly not very considerable resources at their command. They dropped the wing who was supposed to be a world-beater, Niall Woods. They could not make up their minds whether Jonathan Bell was a wing or a centre, and he ended up by being neither.

Their one player who could plausibly be placed in the same class as Neil Jenkins and Rob Andrew - that is, Eric Elwood - was dropped for the early fixtures. The reasons given were that Ireland wanted to play a more expansive game and that he was not match-fit. Yet he was on the bench as a substitute. How could he be a substitute if he was not fit? And why was he on the bench at all, if Ireland had decided on a style of play with which his presence was incompatible?

Among the forwards, there were genuine discoveries in Gabriel Fulcher and Anthony Foley. But Keith Wood was dropped too soon. How can anyone be allegedly the best hooker in the world at one minute, a discard at the next? It does not make sense. But the much-admired props by his side seem to have suffered a progessive deterioration. By all accounts (for I was at Twickenham, not Cardiff), Spencer John and Mike Griffiths gave Nick Popplewell and Peter Clohessy a rough time.

This appeared to be the only commendable feature in the Welsh performance. The other bright spot of the season was filled by the Singing Policeman of Pontardulais, Derwyn Jones. From the South African match onwards, he gave Wales something they had been lacking since the days of Robert Norster: presence in the lineout.

So, with typical Welsh logic, he was dropped after the Scottish match. This action, together with the dropping of Hemi Taylor instead of playing him at No 8, provided the reason why John Williams resigned as adviser to the selectors and Geoff Evans is considering his position as a selector. It has even been suggested that they were misled or that, at least, there was a misunderstanding, Evans and Williams thinking when they left the meeting that their view had prevailed.

But assuming (what I do not accept), that the dropping of Jones was justified, bringing back Phil Davies was more retrogressive. Alan Davies, the coach, is a nice man, and has the confidence of the senior players (though not of all the ex-players). But he does not seem over-endowed with rugby imagination. His or his successor's first step should now be to restore the traditional Welsh jersey instead of the toddler's jumper which is now being sported.

Scotland have not changed their old kit. They have not changed their style of play either, which has always depended on spoiling, more recently on rucking as opposed to mauling, and on a life lived dangerously close to the fringes of offside. The great back row of John Jeffrey, Derek White and Finlay Calder were particularly adept at this scavenging existence.

I have always had a soft spot for Brian Moore. He is the Kenneth Clarke of rugby football. After Saturday's match he spoke the truth. But why should he have been so surprised?

He has, however, the distinction of inventing something entirely new. We have all heard of sour grapes. They derive from Aesop's fable of the fox, who tried to get at some grapes but, when he found they were beyond his reach, said they were sour. The phrase has been extended to apply to any carping by a loser. Moore has now extended it still further: to apply to carping by a winner as well.

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