Rugby Union: Winterbottom blooms among perennials

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NOT everything in the rose garden is blooming. Far from it in fact. One or two of the hardiest specimens were visibly wilting at Wembley last week, while the green shoots of recovery may need a while longer under cover before being exposed to the harsher climate on the upper slopes. It was once again left to that most vigorous of perennials, Peter Winterbottom, to put the shrinking violets to shame.

It is now nearly 11 years since Winterbottom won his first cap, yet he is playing with the same relentless urgency, unfailing valour and unflagging enthusiasm of his youth. In my final season of senior rugby at Headingley, one of the most enjoyable of my career, I was a frequent visitor at the Winterbottom home. 'For God's sake teach the boy how to pass,' implored his father John. But all the boy wanted to do was to tackle and now, well into manhood, tackling is still what Winterbottom does best although the transformation in his ball-handling skills over the years has been nothing short of miraculous.

However, there has to be a price to pay for such long and selfless service in the most physically demanding position on the field, and, in all probability, Winterbottom's seemingly indestructible frame cannot go on absorbing the punishment for much longer.

The descent from superman to superannuated man is as terrifyingly swift as it is inevitable and, notwithstanding Winterbottom's continuing defiance of the forces of nature, positive thinking and sheer bloody-mindedness may no longer be the most effective analgesics for getting through the pain barrier.

Winterbottom would, of course, be the last to concede that any such barrier even existed and, certainly on the evidence of last Saturday's international against Canada, England's back row would have been lost without him. Herein lies England's present dilemma.

The selectors know that by the end of this season, they will lose at least five more members of the pack which has carried them to two Grand Slams in a row - Winterbottom, Mike Teague, Dean Richards, Wade Dooley and Jeff Probyn. That still gives England time to rebuild for the World Cup in 1995, but only just. In the short term, and again on the evidence of last Saturday, it is quite apparent that England's target of three successive Grand Slams would be unattainable without the hard core of veterans from previous campaigns.

But some of the old dogs are unable to master the new tricks. Richards is one of them, and the return of Ben Clarke and Teague to the squad surely offers a clue to the composition of the back row against the Springboks next month. It would be unwise of the selectors to persevere with the three who played against Canada. Dean Ryan is even less of a genuine No 6 under the new laws than under the old, and England can consider themselves fortunate that they were not more severely punished for the freedom they gave to the Canadians' scrum-half John Graf on some of his audacious blind-side excursions.

Victor Ubogu's undistinguished debut was not so such the result of his own inexperience as England's tactical naivety in asking him to run at a well marshalled and highly motivated defence from such shallow positions. It was England's inability to build up any forward momentum which proved to be Ubogu's undoing and it was here, principally, where England betrayed a lack of appreciation of the game as it now has to be played.

In the full and frank discussions which are bound to precede the Springboks game, it would be surprising if one or two of the younger members of the squad were not made fully aware of their responsibilities and of the need to pull as well as to push their weight. Jason Leonard can be forgiven for treading warily last Saturday because, with his injury problems, he should not have been playing in the first place.

But no such excuse can be made for Martin Bayfield who can do for England what John Eales is doing for Australia. For a player of Bayfield's dimensions, he is remarkably sprightly and agile in the loose and can tackle with the best of them. But he has yet to impose his awesome physical presence on the line- out with any consistency. He was intermittently successful at Wembley, but that simply will not be enough against opponents of higher calibre than the Canadians who, for all the bullishness of their engaging captain Norm Hadley at the post-match interview, should not have come within 30 points of beating England.

The Canadians have been gravely weakened by unavailability and injury since the World Cup, and the excuse advanced on England's behalf that they too had undergone significant changes in personnel since the final against Australia can be countered by the argument that, unlike Canada, four of the eight missing Englishmen - Brian Moore, Probyn, Teague and Richard Hill - had been available for selection.

A fifth, Rory Underwood, will surely be back on England's wing for the Springboks game, probably in place of his brother Tony whose highly strung meanderings and positional uncertainties would come to grief under the accuracy of Naas Botha's boot.

There is time yet for the gifted Tony but a lot of repair work will have to be done, as much on his fragile confidence as on the nuts and bolts of his game. Ian Hunter's success on the opposite wing, together with his experience as a full-back, so invaluable under aerial attack, makes his second cap a formality. Like Winterbottom, Hunter at least displayed a passion and patriotic pride which were not always evident among some of his colleagues.

Will Carling, whose growing maturity as a captain is increasing his authority and influence within the squad, did his best to keep England on the boil. Yet they looked no more convincing against Canada than they had done on the first week of the season at Leicester. On that occasion the new laws and creaking joints were offered as excuses for a shapeless and lethargic display. So far it appears that England have still not adapted to the one and have not yet fully lubricated the other. A repeat against the Springboks and there can be no more excuses. Only questions.