Rugby Union: Tough entry to Cotton club

Chris Rea argues that the tour squad says much about England's team
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The Independent Online
So who has got it right? Is it Jack Rowell whose England have created all manner of records in their first two championship matches, crushing Scotland and Ireland in the process? Or is it the Lions, whose omission of the entire England threequarter line from the preliminary squad of 62 for South Africa has caused near apoplexy in certain quarters?

Forget the Will Carling side-show regarding the captaincy. That was the reddest of herrings and even if Carling had been available for selection, I doubt very much that Fran Cotton would have picked him in the touring party. As for Phil de Glanville's bleating claim of Cotton's animosity towards him, that is arrant nonsense. The harsh reality is that de Glanville is probably not among the top 10 centres in the four home unions. Unless there is a drastic slump in form, the four Lions centres are likely to be Scott Gibbs, Allan Bateman, Jeremy Guscott and Will Greenwood.

It is not so much that Cotton has ignored en bloc England's threequarters as the fact that he has selected no fewer than 10 English backs not at present in the side or even in the squad. One can safely assume therefore that were he coaching England today his back division would be assembled along very different lines with Stimpson at full-back, Bentley or Beal or Adebayo on the wings, Guscott and Greenwood in the centre, Grayson at fly-half and either Bracken or Healey at scrum-half. Incidentally, it is not entirely preposterous to venture the thought that Healey might yet make the final 35 as a wing.

But to return to the original question - Rowell or Cotton? There is a decent argument in support of the view that in his pre-Christmas selections Rowell got every position wrong from 6 to 14. Since then he has re-cast the back row switching Tim Rodber to No 8, Lawrence Dallaglio to No 6 and introducing Richard Hill at No 7. He has also dropped Mike Catt in favour of Grayson at fly-half. This is not minor tinkering but major surgery influencing strategy and style, and it raises the question as to why Rowell got it so wrong in the first place.

Cotton and his co-selectors have been heavily criticised for the insensitivity of their timing. They might have delayed the announcement until after the French game at Twickenham next week. But what would that have achieved apart from postponing the inevitable bruising of a few overblown egos?

The Lions management team is uniquely well qualified. Between them, Cotton, Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer have 23 Lions Test caps and all three have toured South Africa. If they do not know by now what is required to win a series in that country they never will. Furthermore, they have already had the opportunity of assessing candidates against Australia, South Africa and the New Zealand Barbarians, a more relevant yardstick than the present championship. They know well that the Lions will not be allowed 60 minutes of softening up and 20 minutes of unopposed rugby by the Springboks.

There was, however, one elemental fact which was re- emphasised in Dublin last Saturday and that is the importance of fielding a fly-half who is a kicker first and a runner second. This is particularly the case in South Africa where, at altitude, a skilled kicker from the hand can torture opposition defences. Naas Botha, a player of staggeringly limited ability, became a legend solely on the strength and accuracy of his kicking. Before the start of the Five Nations' Championship, I would have wagered all my worldly goods on the Lions selectors' preference for Gregor Townsend as the Test fly-half. But they should now be having serious doubts.

Grayson's command and control in the maelstrom of Dublin helped steer England through a torrid opening quarter. He was never less than calmly authoritative in all that he did. Yet he remained alive to the attacking opportunities beyond his own narrow sphere and only once lost the chance of a score not by kicking away possession but with a quixotic piece of over-elaboration. Grayson advanced several places last week in Dublin and more of the same at Twickenham on Saturday against the French would dismantle at least one preconceived notion on Lions Test selection.

The question which remains unanswered, of course, is whether or not England can play with the same fluency when they are 15 points behind as they do when they are comfortably ahead.

The French, still unbeaten but desperately fortunate to remain so after last week's rough ride against Wales, have good reason to believe that only England now stand between them and a Grand Slam. They play at Murrayfield three weeks hence but it is the elusive victory at Twickenham they prize above all others. It is probably their least favourite ground and coupled with their Anglo-Saxon conspiracy theory that everyone on the planet is out of step with the laws of the game except the French, they have been reduced time and again to an undisciplined rabble.

It is as futile to guess at French strategy as it has been this season to predict the selection of their side. They are bedevilled by injury and suspension and even with the redoubtable Pierre Villepreux in their coaching team, their best-laid plans are, as always, vulnerable. Even with the matchless Abdelatif Benazzi, the French cannot relish a confrontation with England's forwards. Wales are no great shakes in the tight five and yet they did enough not only to hold the French but to build a platform solid enough to liberate their backs. Had the Welsh taken their chances and had they not been the victims of the fickleness of the bounce, they would have won.

Even so, Cotton described the Welsh performance as the most positive he had seen by a visiting side at Parc des Princes. That being so, if England are to be brought down this season, I fancy that it will not be at Twickenham but at that traditional burial ground of their hopes, the National Stadium in Cardiff.

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