Rugby Union: Trial by force for team of the moment

Five Nations: Now for the hard yards as Scotland's spirit of togetherness is put to the Twickenham test
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The first editions of the newspapers made interesting reading on the journey south from Edinburgh last Sunday. The panjandrums at the BBC may have been doing cartwheels on discovering that the Grandstand audience had peaked at 6.6 million during Saturday's rugby extravaganza at Lansdowne Road and Murrayfield but we poor hacks who, as a result of the back-to-back scheduling had to have two-thirds of our copy from Murrayfield filed by half-time, were in a fearful pickle. The common thread in those early reports was the mounting ascendancy of the Welsh, who had enjoyed the better of the middle quarters and who, following Scott Gibbs' try, seemed to be heading for victory.

A book would scarcely have done justice to Scotland's breathtaking finish, let alone a measly 200 words, but time and newspaper deadlines wait for no one and, perforce Scotland's stunning revival was given the "and finally" treatment reserved for Trevor McDonald's unconsidered trifles at the fag end of the News At Ten.

It was a different story in the later editions, of course, but the first impressions were revealing and consistent with the belief that this was a match Wales lost rather than one which the Scots fully deserved to win. Wales finished second, albeit a close second, in the forward exchanges, particularly in the line-out where the lack of security on their own ball spread quickly through the ranks and undoubtedly played its part in the disturbing lack of penetration behind the scrum.

But if the Welsh found almost enough paper to cover the cracks at Murrayfield, they will require many more rolls of thicker quality if they are to survive the Irish onslaught at Wembley on Saturday. The likely return after injury of Craig Quinnell and David Young will help to reinforce a pack which will in any event be at full stretch just to cope.

The big imponderable is the depth of the mental wounds inflicted on both vanquished sides last Saturday. The Welsh, despite the margin of their defeat at Murrayfield may well be less traumatised by it than the Irish after the utter wretchedness of their reverse against the French. Both sides know that a second successive championship defeat would reduce the remainder of the campaign to an exercise in pride salvaging and pie-in- the-sky talk of World Cup preparation. But finishing in the lower half of the Five Nations table is hardly a promising platform from which to launch a bid for the title of world champions.

Each side can take comfort from the principal failings of the other. The Irish forwards, not withstanding their indiscipline under pressure, are a ferociously combative and disruptive force. Yet for all their overwhelming territorial superiority against France, the lack of a cutting edge behind and of a goal kicker of international standard proved decisive. Wales have both. The problems encountered by their backs at Murrayfield were generally the result of the forwards' failure to wrest control from the doggedly resilient Scottish pack, but the threat was always there.

Robert Howley, Allan Bateman and, although hardly in evidence last Saturday, Shane Howarth are capable of inflicting permanent damage, as is Neil Jenkins, so often under-rated as a play-maker but never as a kicker of goals. Even in defeat Jenkins performed commendably as a fly-half and he is in a class apart as a goal-kicker. Ireland with Jenkins would be a decent bet at Wembley but without him they must trust to their pack and to the luck which deserted them in Dublin.

Of the competing nations only Wales and France are reasonably settled in the crucial area of fly-half. Clive Woodward has apparently back-tracked on his earlier views on Joel Stransky as the answer to England's continuing problems in this position, although to be fair to Woodward all he had said was that it would be a sad day for the country if they had to resort to an ageing South African, no matter how talented, as the inevitably short-term solution. In this Woodward is perfectly correct. There is a disturbing dearth of talent and if Jon Wilkinson's early promise is broken, as with so many others before him, England's long-term prospects at fly- half are bleak. But for the present Woodward must make do with what he has.

As this column has consistently argued, the only position for Mike Catt at international level is centre and in the enforced absence of other partners for Jeremy Guscott this is where he should play, fitness permitting, in Saturday's Calcutta Cup. The question of who turns out at fly-half against the Scots may not be all that important if the English forwards, as so many expect, take complete control. Lawrence Dallaglio, sitting in the Murrayfield press box last Saturday, was diplomatically generous in his praise of the Scots, but for all the spectacle and excitement of a truly memorable match, he would not have been mentally re-designing England's game plan.

At Twickenham, which has yielded only two victories in 61 years, the Scots know what to expect. Not only will they need the luck which accompanied them against Wales but a commitment above and probably beyond their physical endurance. But as Jim Telfer observed, the Scots' reliance on collective endeavour and unshakeable team spirit rather than individual brilliance played a significant part in their success, and if they are a long way still from being favourites, they are, after last week, much smarter underdogs.

Of the politics which continue to rage even through the season's showpiece there is neither surprise nor sorrow in this column at Sir John Hall's retirement from the battlefield on which he spilled so much of rugby's lifeblood. Neither will regular readers be shocked to learn of the demise of plans for the British or the Anglo-Welsh alliance. The positive noises coming from the talks between France and England on the return of the latter to Europe next season must be tempered by the fact that the proposals have still to be approved by ERC. And not even the English clubs' frantic attempts to remove the egg which has been plastered over the face of their champion Brian Baister in recent weeks, as the RFU chairman has been forced into a series of retractions, denials and withdrawals, will surely persuade them to re-enter the competition under the terms which they flatly rejected a year ago. How foolish and profligate would they look then?

But perhaps anything would be better for England's leading clubs than Fran Cotton's re-emergence and the restoration of sanity and order to a game so vulnerable to exploitation by the unprincipled and ruthless men who now infest it.

Comments