Rugby Union: Why winning is not always everything

The Five Nations, with the promise of serious competition, will tell us if England are moving forward
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The Independent Online
At the risk of further inflaming those readers who felt that I was ungraciously sparing in my praise of England last week, I have two questions to ask. How much of the delirious media hype which followed the victory was due to the fact that England won, and what would have been the reaction from the same media and England supporters if, in those dying seconds of the match, England had lost? Winning is almost everything, but not quite, a fact mercifully recognised by England's coaches and captain.

The bottom line is that it was a grand occasion at Twickenham last Saturday but not a great game of rugby and had England, as they did the previous week against Australia, blown their chances in the closing stages, there is little doubt that the criticism of their performance would have been every bit as scathing as it was following the defeat by the Wallabies. Even worse, perhaps, because there are compelling arguments in support of the view that of the two touring sides to play at Twickenham, the Australians appeared to be in better shape both mentally and physically.

Even so, like the Springboks, the Australians were well below par and although few who were present would claim that they didn't receive value for money last Saturday, one wonders whether or not supporters are being short-changed by the quality of the rugby in these pre-Christmas international fests.

As to the opinion that winning is not quite everything, this was convincingly backed up by Wales in their heroic failure against the Springboks. Admittedly the burden of expectation on the Welsh was much lower than it was on England, but in the quality of their performance and by their attitude and approach throughout a marvellous match, the Welsh assured themselves of a critical review every bit as favourable in defeat as it would have been had they held on to win.

At least England's management have their feet on the ground. Clive Woodward is justifiably savouring the success, and he deserves it. He also needed it to stave off the mounting criticism which, however unreasonable, was the inevitable consequence of some very ugly scars on England's playing record in recent months.

A tightly marshalled defence and a combative and competitive pack provide the securest of foundations on which to build, but England will need more than that if they are to win the World Cup. Against the frightening intensity of the Australians first-up defence, England's forwards could make no headway and had the Wallabies' hooker Phil Kearns not suffered from what in golfing parlance could only be described as a terminal dose of the yips with his throwing to the line-out, the Australians' victory would have been more comfortable than it was. Add to this the fact that they were without their most penetrative backs and their optimism appears to be well founded.

For a realistic assessment of England's future, however, it is not so much a case of the jury still being out as it is of the jury requesting a retrial. In sealing their success last Saturday, England returned to the tried and tested qualities of physical strength and mental application which, in certain circumstances in the past, have won them matches. We all know about their forward power although the emergence of Tim Rodber as a long-term partner to the splendidly refreshed Martin Johnson is a bonus.

What else do we know? Only that Jeremy Guscott, as he has been for the past decade, is in a class of his own, which, given England's enviable depth of playing resources, is a fairly dreadful indictment of the country's development programme. Mike Catt may have had one of his better days for England but is no closer to proving himself a top quality international fly-half. It is much too early to offer an authoritative opinion on Dan Luger, well though he played against the Springboks. And even if Nick Beal had got the rub of the green last Saturday, which he most certainly did not, there was no evidence that he is England's answer to Christian Cullen, Percy Montgomery or, on his Wembley performance, Shane Howarth.

Woodward is a good man, intelligent, innovative, passionately committed and hugely popular with his players, but the fact is that we know little more about his England than we did about Jack Rowell's. Are they going forward, have they gone back or are they standing still? For the first time in a number of years the forthcoming Five Nations' Championship, with its promise of serious competition - which may in itself be a sign of England's regression - might help to provide us with some, if not all, of the answers.

England, meanwhile, have another international fixture to fulfil with the International Rugby Board in Dublin later this week, when they are up before the beak to explain their position in relation to their leading clubs and in particular their response to the clubs' challenge to their authority through the European courts.

There are other side-issues simmering uncomfortably close to the surface, such as the television monies still outstanding to Scotland, Ireland and Wales and the continuing unofficial contact over cross-border and even trans-world club competitions without reference to the game's ruling body. If the Rugby Football Union believe that they will escape from Dublin with nothing more than a light rap on the knuckles, they could be in for an unpleasant shock.