Rugby Union: The boot on the other foot

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The Independent Online
SO FAR, the All Blacks have played with real authority in only one match of their tour - in their first, against London Division. And yet yesterday's papers were full of pessimism about England's chances against them in 18 days' time. Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why English spirits have drooped.

The presence of Martin Bayfield, who has been ruled out by a persistent neck injury, had been crucial to their plans to dominate or, at least, to achieve parity in the line-out. His likely substitute, Nigel Redman, is a fine all-round forward who has perhaps been insufficiently recognised in the past. But, unlike Bayfield, he is a front- jumper, which presumably means that Martin Johnson will have to retreat to No 4.

Then again, England A did not put up a specially spirited performance on Sunday, hard though John Hall tried to rally his forwards. When Laurie Mains said that New Zealand had not yet given of their best, we were only too inclined to believe him.

It might improve the morale of England supporters if they noted that Mains is able to say this only because (the London match apart) New Zealand have been disappointing until now. The South-West and Midlands might, with a bit of luck and a big boot, have beaten them.

It is certainly arguable that New Zealand defeated the Midlands because of the goal-kicking of Matthew Cooper. I have received more correspondence about this episode than about the injury to Philip de Glanville's eye, lamentable though this undoubtedly was. So I will say something about the Cooper incident.

In the Midlands match, Shane Howarth was evidently out of form with his shots at goal, even though he did manage to kick two penalties. Lee Stensness, the centre, sustained a knee injury and was replaced by Cooper, a utility back. Cooper proceeded to take over the kicking and placed two difficult penalties, so enabling the New Zealanders to win by four penalties to John Steele's two for the Midlands.

Immediately afterwards, it was alleged that Stensness had not really been injured at all but had feigned - or, at any rate, exaggerated - an injury to provide a vacancy on the field for the specialist kicker Cooper. The New Zealand management responded with indignation, as well they might. Stensness, they said, was indeed hurt.

I am sure he was. But this does not dispose of the problem, which is not, as far as I know, dealt with in the laws.

Suppose, for the sake of illustration, that Stuart Barnes is England's outside-half on 27 November (as he ought to be) and is additionally given responsibility for the kicking, Jonathan Callard having been discarded (as he ought not to be). Barnes misses every single shot at goal. Jeremy Guscott or whoever it may be is injured; whereupon Rob Andrew comes on as a substitute. He is assigned kicking duties, and lands every one, so enabling England to win the match.

Is this within the laws? Certainly. Ought it to be? I am not so sure. But what this tour has shown so far, if demonstration were needed, is that place-kicking is as important as it ever was, despite the exaltation of the try to five points.

In this area, Geoff Cooke and his colleagues have been negligent beyond belief. They knew that Jonathan Webb was going to retire. They realised that David Pears (Cooke's original favourite) was injured. Yet they persisted in toying with the equally injury-prone Ian Hunter, Cooke saying the while that England needed a proper goal-kicker among the backs, which was only too obvious.

In these circumstances, the arrival of Callard on the scene was an unexpected bonus. Cooke and his colleagues should be properly grateful for his emergence instead of dissatisfied with his performance. The alternative, I suppose, is to bring back Simon Hodgkinson.