Rugby Union: Time for a harsh reality check

Five Nations retrospective: After the euphoria of a truly thrilling event, the hard work begins in earnest
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The Independent Online
HOLD ON a moment. A little order, if you please. We may have witnessed one of the most absorbing Five Nations' Championships for many a year, in which the tournament recovered its competitive edge, the Celts rediscovered their self- respect and the English, despite falling short of their targets, retained their unshakeable self-belief, but things are getting out of hand.

All of a sudden it appears that everything in this country, so bleak and dismal last summer, is blooming. With equal speed, the game in the southern hemisphere has, by all accounts, turned sour. Overnight the four home countries have become potential world champions. France, from two- times champs to all-time chumps, have fallen out of the charts altogether while New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, the three previous winners of the Webb Ellis Trophy, are in various stages of decline. The Super 12, the finest tournament on the rugby planet a year ago, is now over- hyped and over-rated, froth without fury, sparkle without substance.

We are informed that the southern hemisphere has gone soft and that the power base of the world game has shifted 12,000 miles north. And if you don't believe our local pundits, you can have the facts confirmed by a selection of distinguished Kiwis who have been lined up to lend support to this view. Both Graham Henry and Shane Howarth have, in recent weeks, expressed their admiration for the passion and the unique atmosphere of the Five Nations, and their pleasant surprise at the standard of the rugby.

Both have contributed immeasurably to the success of this season's championship and both are unquestionably genuine in their beliefs. But given that the expectation level of the quality of rugby in this country was pretty low in the first place and that they are hardly likely to write off the game from which they now earn their living, they may not be the most accurate barometers. Neither, to my knowledge, has committed himself to the opinion that the winner of the forthcoming World Cup will emerge from one of the home unions.

Nevertheless, only a plank of wood could fail to have been bewitched by some of the play during the past couple of months. The two matches in Paris were unforgettable, riotously entertaining and at times technically superb. Some of the Scottish forwards' driving and delivery at Stade de France was as breathtakingly fast and accurate as anything we have seen. If Tom Smith, Scott Murray and Eric Peters were more often than not picked out for special mention, it was the all- purpose ability of the entire pack which took most onlookers by surprise.

Gregor Townsend was, of course, the guiding genius who has forever removed the word dour from the Scottish rugby lexicon and who, along with Thomas Castaignede, embodied the spirit of exhilaration and adventure in which most of the championship was played, but for many it was the understated and dangerously underrated John Leslie who was the player of the tournament. The New Zealanders seldom make mistakes in rugby matters but they made a howler when they allowed this whopping big fish to slip through the net.

The Scots, the Welsh and, to a much lesser extent, the Irish all have cause for satisfaction and all can look forward with renewed confidence to the mighty challenges ahead. But the question, unanswerable at this stage, is to what extent the Celtic countries have improved in recent months. Can Wales really be 50 to 60 points better today than they were a year ago? It is possible, I suppose, given that they so dramatically reduced a 90-point deficit in a matter of weeks against the Springboks. It would be supreme folly, however, to believe that what we saw from the South Africans and the Australians before Christmas is what we will get from them in the World Cup this autumn.

If the Celts have not improved to the extent that so many imagined, where then does that leave England, still, by common consent, the strongest side in Europe? They lost one championship match and came within a Kenny Logan penalty kick of recording their worst sequence of championship results for six years. Despite dominating all four of their opponents, their failure to put any one of them away suggests a flaw in their makeup either mentally or tactically.

There have been criticisms of England's decision-making but the point is that Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt could have made any number of wrong decisions last year and England would still have won the Triple Crown with something to spare. The line being pushed by the England camp, that they have made significant progress, is therefore a little hard to swallow at this stage.

For all their control and possession they still relied on Jonny Wilkinson's extraordinary accuracy and maturity to win matches. Sometime, somewhere Wilkinson will have an off-day and England will have to find an alternative method of scoring points.

With such a dominant pack of forwards it should be easy enough for the backs to score tries. Yet in a composite Five Nations XV selected from this year's championship, the only English back meriting inclusion would be Dan Luger, and a compelling case could be made for omitting him for either Christophe Dominici or Logan. Something wrong there, surely.

Perhaps it is because of England's forward supremacy that their backs are being denied the opportunities which opened up so often for the other countries. The English forwards have too much control. They are carrying the ball a couple of steps too far and holding on to it for a couple of seconds too long. The forwards now being hailed as the best in the world are no better in the present time-frame than the Grand Slam winning pack of the early Nineties or Bill Beaumont's 1980 mastodons.

There is nothing new in a highly efficient omnipotent English pack, just as it is not the first time that England are being talked up as World Cup winners. If, however, in six months' time, expectation becomes reality, that would be a first.