Rugby Union: The decline of the English front row is one of the mysteries of the age

Alan Watkins On Rugby
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The Independent Online
A lot of rugby followers will, I suspect, be fed up with the game even before they have started their Christmas dinners. They will have seen too much of it and certainly read too much about it. Last Saturday and Sunday witnessed not one but four internationals, all involving countries from the southern hemisphere. The only European country not to have been on display was Scotland.

By switching channels and using the video recorder it was possible to be in two places at once, which was probably a bad thing to be. Nevertheless, it enables us to establish a world ranking: 1 New Zealand, 2 South Africa, 3 France, 4 Australia. And who are to fill the fifth position? Many readers would doubtless reply "England, of course", assuming they had not had made England No 4.

I am not so sure. True, England scraped a draw with Australia through the boot of a semi-concussed Mike Catt. Perhaps Clive Woodward, the coach, should arrange for him to take a bump before he tries every kick. For previously, though he had managed four successful penalties, Catt had not looked at all happy in his execution. He missed several he should have put over.

So did John Eales for Australia. He missed four of them. The English rugby correspondent who wrote afterwards that the draw was "a fair result" seemed to be showing altogether too much indulgence towards his native land.

Yes, I know perfectly well that try-counts can be misleading. On this occasion they were not. George Gregan scored an excellent try for Australia, Ben Tunes a good one.

England looked like scoring only once - when Adedayo Adebayo was pulled down just short of the line which, if he had been playing for Bath, he would have crossed through sheer determination. Though he seemed to be suffering at times from a touch of the Underwoods (which may be defined as a tendency to gaze into distant space while forgetting where the touchline is) he deserves another chance.

So does David Rees on the other wing. So also does Will Greenwood, who should, however, be played in his proper position of inside centre, and not messed about as he was on Saturday. Still, the only English backs able to leave the field with credit were Kyran Bracken, Catt and Matt Perry.

Quite why that illiterate Twickenham crowd have it in for Catt continues to elude me. As a sheer footballer, Perry is his only rival. But he is not an international place-kicker. Jon Callard and Paul Grayson are. It is folly for Woodward to take England into the Five Nations when Ireland, Wales and France's kickers will be, respectively, Eric Elwood, Neil Jenkins and Christophe Lamaison.

I do not suppose Woodward will take my advice to retain Catt but find room for Callard or Grayson. It is unexciting advice, out of kilter with the bold spirit of the times. I think it sensible, that is all.

The English forwards who can take comfort from Saturday's outing are even fewer: Garath Archer and Lawrence Dallaglio. It may be that Tony Diprose and Richard Hill were less prominent than usual - certainly Hill was putting himself about less - because the players in front of them spent much of the afternoon walking backwards for Christmas. Even so, Tim Rodber and Neil Back surely now deserve a chance.

The decline of the English front row is one of the mysteries of the age. Only a few seasons ago it consisted of Jeff Probyn, Brian Moore and Jason Leonard. The tallest was Probyn at 5ft 10in. The heaviest was Leonard, then under 16 stones. By Antipodean, or even French, standards it was tiny. Nevertheless, it could take on any trio in the world.

Probyn and Moore have departed the international scene. Leonard is heavier but not quite the force he was, even though on Saturday he had been restored to his proper position at loose head. Perhaps it is time to put the old workhorse out to grass and replace him with Kevin Yates of Bath. Yates's colleague Victor Ubogu - returned from the rugby dead - could be on the other side, with Richard Cockerill retaining his place as hooker.

One of the odd things about the modern game is that a hooker is not judged by whether he is any good at hooking or even nippy about the field but by whether he can throw the ball accurately into the line-outs. But why should a hooker be required to be good at this? Why not return the duties to the wing, or continue with Jacques Fouroux's short-lived experiment of giving the task to the scrum-half? I am only asking.

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