Rugby Union: Why England can no longer put on a bold front

Mark Evans, the Saracens coaching director, says a national asset has been lost
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The Independent Online
Back in the 1970s - the decade that taste forgot - there were some very strange sights: 28-inch flares, platform shoes and the Bay City Rollers. But amidst such bizarre offerings there were a few reassuring certainties. Liverpool would win the League, Dennis Lillee would rip the heart out of the English middle order and British rugby teams would scrummage Southern Hemisphere teams to death.

Unlikely as it may seem to the younger reader, the mighty All Blacks were humiliated to such an extent in the 1977 Lions Test series that they were forced to take refuge in the calling of three-man scrums - they literally couldn't take the pressure. Three years earlier had seen Bobby Windsor packing so low that he regularly hooked with his head and the pride of Afrikanerdom being pushed all over the high veld. Men such as Burton, Carmichael, McLaughlin, McLauchlan, Price, Blakeway and Cotton were all legendary scrummagers - they provided the foundations upon which British rugby based its all too brief period of genuine world supremacy.

How Clive Woodward must look back wistfully on such times. With Os du Randt, Tox van de Linde, Olo Brown and Craig Dowd looming on the horizon English front-row play is in complete disarray. In recent weeks Toulouse have destroyed the much-vaunted Leicester front three, Cardiff and Bourgoin have given the Harlequins trio some food for thought and the Wasps scrummage has looked average in the Premiership. The only unit which has matched French opposition has been the Bath combination but I am told that a rejuvenated Victor Ubogu has been less than impressive during recent England training sessions.

The only proven English front-row forward - Jason Leonard - is clearly playing out of position at tight-head. He only moved across, in an amateur era, to compensate for a lack of alternatives at national level. He has coped admirably but on the tight-head he is not much more than competent. Every week he stays there his hard won reputation is diminished. He is the only genuine loose-head force in the country and should be moved back there immediately. Unfortunately, his club side Harlequins don't have an adequate tight-head so they are likely to keep him there. To switch sides with little or no practice is a big ask but there is no point having a weakness on both sides of the scrummage. But make no mistake the options at No 3 are just as limited at national level as they are in south-west London.

The names Will Green and Phil Vickery have been mentioned in dispatches but having seen both at close quarters in the Premiership in recent weeks I would have my doubts as to how they will cope in the tight at this stage of their development. Looking at the squad it seems as if Darren Garforth may be given the job - there will be some serious misgivings if this is the case.

The situation at hooker is even more chaotic. The original three squad members Regan, Greening and Mitchell are all struggling to hold down a regular club spot. The precocious talent of Andrew Long has been recognised, but to select him would be as big a risk as Bob Dwyer's selection of Phil Kearns straight from the Randwick second team back in 1989. That turned out to be an inspired choice and such is the lack of form of the other contenders that Clive Woodward may well be tempted to gamble. If the other members of the front row were straightforward selections I am sure he would be even more attracted to such a course of action.

Is all this a temporary blip - one of those things that time will inevitably remedy? Regrettably I think not - our situation is a direct consequence of two well- established trends. To begin with, scrummaging, for whatever reason, became deeply unfashionable. The call went up for mobile, ball-handling forwards. Fair enough, but at the same time we neglected to pay sufficient attention to the onerous duties of the tight. Marathon scrummaging sessions fell into disrepute, live scrummaging in practice became a thing of the past and valuable training time was spent on other equally worthy but different activities.

Alongside this development we saw a change, on safety grounds, in the rules governing Under-19 rugby. The scrum was de-powered and as a result young props entered the senior game with a very limited experience of the techniques necessary to prosper in the front row.

This has seemed to affect British players more than most and recent law changes which require the back-row forwards to remain bound have highlighted our inadequacies. Suddenly the ability to control the angle of the scrum has become all important. If you wish to cause maximum distress to the opposition then drive up the right-hand side of your scrummage when you are on the right-hand side of the pitch and watch them squirm. It is extremely difficult to defend. Alternatively, try and hold out the Toulouse scrum on your own five-metre line - not easy.

Recently England have employed the services of a specialist scrummaging coach. If he can improve our stock in this area then he will be worth a fortune. But the raw material does not look promising. It is time, as John Major once said, to go "back to basics".