Rugby Union: Woodward needs to find a quality streak

Five Nations: Grandiose game plan flounders as the search for world-class players draws a blank
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We have had a week to assemble and analyse the excuses for England's under-achievement against the Scots. They range from early-tournament rust to mid-season fatigue, from complacency to over-eagerness and from tactical naivety to indecisive leadership. Nowhere has it been suggested that this England team are not very good. What is not in doubt, however, is that the gap between the top and bottom of the Five Nations has narrowed in the past 12 months. But which way? Have Scotland, Ireland and Wales risen, or are England descending? It is probably a bit of both, but either way the signs are that England are on the slide.

Nothing has happened since the victory over South Africa to alter my opinion that England were as much over-praised then as they were over- criticised after defeat by the Wallabies. Of the two touring sides, the Australians were the superior, if only because they were fresher and fitter. England could have won that match at the last, just as they could have lost in the final seconds to the Springboks, but the truth is that both South Africa and Australia will be unrecognisable by the time of the World Cup.

The question is - will England? Laudable as Clive Woodward's attempts are to turn England into a bunch of all-purpose totalitarians, one has to question the wisdom of such a strategy when the quality of so many of the parts is suspect. The notion promoted by those besotted with the Allied Dunbar Premiership that English club rugby is stronger than it has ever been, is misleading. The strength of the competition has been distorted by the importation of large numbers of non-English qualified players, many of whom are in the sunset of their careers but still good enough to make a significant impact on the playing standards. All the while the depth and quality of English players is being eroded and diluted. At the present time Woodward cannot play the game he aspires to with the players he has at his disposal. It is not a question of poor judgement or wayward selection, it is simply a chronic shortage of players of international standard.

For most of the past decade, which, in terms of results and achievements, has been their most successful in their history, England have been prone to strategic tinkering, traceable to that fateful day at Murrayfield in 1990, when, having dismantled Ireland, Wales and France with an irresistible concoction of power and stylish adventure, England hit a freak wave in the shape of the Scots. It completely unhinged them and from that point on England have been in a tactical dither, occasionally changing horses in midstream as they did so calamitously for the World Cup final in 1991 and, at other times, flying in the face of common sense and best practice by playing to their weaknesses rather than their strengths, as they did for three-quarters of the Calcutta Cup match last Saturday.

Even without Mike Catt at fly-half England's tactical plan is highly questionable. With him it is potentially disastrous. Catt is an instinctive player who reacts to situations as he sees them at that precise moment. The problem is that his vision does not extend far enough. He plays for much of the time with an unseeing eye, and for a fly-half who has to view the wider picture, this is incompatible with the game- plan Woodward wants. Catt's shortcomings were brought sharply into focus when set against the range of Gregor Townsend's skills. Townsend, admittedly, was aided by a slicker delivery from his forwards, a collective tactical flexibility and by having John Leslie alongside him, but it was his ability to sew the seeds of doubt which so troubled England.

Not the least of the delights in watching Manchester United is their ability around the penalty box to play the ball the opposition least expect. It is, by definition, the most difficult ball to play but it is achieved by a combination of skill and hard work. For England there may be some excuse for an absence of the former but not, in this professional age, for a shortage of the latter. If, in the past, plan A hasn't worked, they have simply redoubled their efforts up front. But those were the days when the England pack could bully opponents into submission. The Scottish forwards, hardly world-beaters in the set piece, cast serious doubts over the strength of the English pack and opened up all manner of possibilities for Lansdowne Road on Saturday.

The biggest threat to England lasting the course, however, comes not so much from the shortcomings of the players but from the bungling of the men steering the ship at Twickenham. Having been forced into abject surrender a few weeks ago in order to participate in the Five Nations, England's position is once again in jeopardy as a result of the agreement cobbled together with the French and English clubs concerning re-entry into Europe next season. The proposal, which would present a blank cheque to the leading clubs in England and France and a free passage to control the competition and thus the scheduling of the entire season in Europe, hasn't a prayer of winning the acceptance of the Celts.

In all the press statements so far the impression has been given that this preposterous document has the full approval of the governing bodies of England and France. It has not. The decision has been taken by a small group of arrogant incompetents with neither the power nor the authority to sanction any such agreement. The proposals have not been discussed by the RFU Council, let alone agreed by them. Nor have they been ratified by the French Federation who, I am prepared to bet if not with my house then my garden shed, will stand with the Celts, leaving England once again in an inglorious porridge of their own making.