Rugby Union: What is right in throwing away points that are there for the taking?

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The Independent Online
As many of my readers are, I am happy to say, old enough to remember Bleddyn Williams, some of them will also remember Hannen Swaffer. He was not, as far as I know, a rugby follower, but a newspaper columnist who wrote on numerous other matters. His catch-phrase was: "I told them, but they wouldn't listen."

Today I make no apology for echoing him. A week ago I told Clive Woodward, the England coach, that Mike Catt was not an international goalkicker, but he wouldn't listen, assuming he heard my advice in the first place.

It may be that he does not consider that kicking penalty goals and converting tries are of the first importance. Some of his comments after Saturday's match at Old Trafford certainly seemed to suggest that this was indeed his point of view. So Catt missed a few? Well, that's life. You win some and you lose some. This appeared to be Woodward's distinctly casual - I would say lackadaisical - attitude.

The England captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, had the same slapdash approach. After the match, he was quoted as saying that you did not beat New Zealand by notching up the odd three points here and there.

In this column I have striven weekly not to give gratuitous offence. I decided to show my kindly side some years ago, when rugby was a game played by young men for exercise and fun. Today the players and administrators must as professionals be judged by more rigorous standards.

Woodward and Dallaglio between them demonstrate a shocking irresponsibility. On and on they go, in that curious management-speak which they have adopted and which has infected the gamely generally, about mental hardness and the right attitude. But what is right, and where is the hardness, in throwing away points that are there for the taking?

Certainly England would not have beaten New Zealand if Catt had kicked all the points on offer. They would have ended up with 19, that is all. If Andrew Mehrtens had kicked his goals, New Zealand would have finished with 30.

But that is not the proper way of looking at things. Catt had three opportunities early in the match. If he had taken them as he ought to have done - and as Paul Grayson, for one, would have done - England would have given New Zealand a nasty shock.

This is precisely what Grayson did in Tuesday's match at Huddersfield when the tourists played a supposedly "emerging" England XV. As we know, New Zealand came back magnificently, as they probably would have done on Saturday likewise.

But England on Saturday were a tougher proposition than the midweek side (where, however, I thought that John Bentley, Mark Regan, Chris Sheasby and Neil Back all did enough to earn a recall). We cannot be absolutely certainly what would have happened at Old Trafford if Catt had been able to give England an early lead of 9-3.

There are two curious features to Woodward's obstinacy in this regard. One is that Grayson was on the substitutes' bench throughout the afternoon and stayed there, though at one point he was going through various warming- up exercises as if about to put in an appearance on the field. When Adedayo Adebayo was slightly injured it was Austin Healey that Woodward brought on in his place.

The other is that, if Woodward played Grayson at outside- half, he could have virtually the back division he wanted in the beginning, Matt Perry still at full-back and Catt at outside centre, where such a distinguished commentator as Chris Rea has long urged he should be.

This solution, if permanent - or as permanent as anything in rugby ever is - would admittedly be harsh on Alex King, Woodward's original first choice at outside-half. But then, I have yet to be convinced that even a fit King at the moment is anything more than a good club player.

I take no pleasure in going on about the importance of kicking points. There is no logical, as distinct from historical, reason why scoring a try should be rewarded with the opportunity of adding another two points. The award of a penalty is now a lottery. I would replace a kick at goal with the choice of a tapped penalty, a scrum or a kick to touch.

At the same time I am a realist. I deal with the world as it is. So did Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan in the summer. The Lions beat South Africa not because of Scott Gibbs's tackling or Jeremy Guscott's brilliance but because of Neil Jenkins's boot - and because South Africa unaccountably refused to avail themselves of the services of Joel Stransky. At least Wales will have Jenkins at Wembley, though I fear he will not be nearly enough.

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