Rugby Union: Woodward wrestles with variant of Stransky problem

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The Independent Online
BEFORE THE match, England were 11-4, South Africa 7-2 on. I was not tempted to have a bet. I thought South Africa would win but, as I indicated last week, had the feeling at the back of my mind that England might just pull it off, as much because of historical precedent as of anything else. Rugby players, in my experience, are not great students of records, although the South Africans knew they were going for a record 18th consecutive win, while the England players realised that it was time they were more than gallant losers against another southern hemisphere side.

In that disastrous tour of last summer, which should never have been set up in the first place (I told them, as did numerous others, but they wouldn't listen), the England players were not, by all accounts, even especially gallant, apart from the now discarded Ben Clarke. They were simply losers. Just over two weeks ago they might have lost to Italy, but a week later they could and should have defeated Australia.

How different, how very different, it was on Saturday. As a spectacle it was curiously similar to the encounter between the Lions and the South Africans in 1997. There was the same tension, the same confrontational style of play, the same pulverising tackling, with the lighter Phil de Glanville at times giving a fair impersonation of Scott Gibbs.

There were the same heroes too: Jeremy Guscott and Matt Dawson, except that in South Africa it was Dawson who scored the try and Guscott who dropped the goal, while at Twickenham Guscott scored the try and Dawson kicked the points, eight of them in all.

In South Africa that latter function was performed by Neil Jenkins. If he were playing for England, they would have beaten Australia 10 days ago and added another three points to their score on Saturday, for Dawson missed a comparatively easy penalty in the first half.

But then, Percy Montgomery missed an even easier penalty later on. Indeed, I am astonished that South Africa have done as well as they have in the last few years when they lack what I would call a proper kicker, someone in the class of Jenkins, Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh - or Joel Stransky.

Stransky had fallen out with the South African authorities before the Lions series, presumably because they knew of his intention to seek his fortune in foreign parts, away from the Veld. There may have been other reasons as well. I do not know. South African rugby politics are as complicated as those of the Conservative Party in the House of Lords. They sometimes seem even more complicated than French rugby politics.

At any rate, the omission of Stransky, for whatever reasons, cost South Africa the series with the Lions. He would have kicked the goals that Henry Honiball so conspicuously missed. He would also have been a better outside-half than Honiball.

I have never met the gentleman, but anyone who has seen him play for Leicester can recognise the genuine article: a player in the class of Thomas Castaignede, Steve Larkham, Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer. Naturally, he is not as fast as some of these. How could he be, at 34? He is probably happy enough now, both with what he has done and with his present position in English rugby. Nevertheless, South Africa have shamefully wasted a great talent.

Clive Woodward, the England coach, has a similar problem on a smaller scale. Neither Paul Grayson nor Mike Catt is in Stransky's league as an outside-half, though Grayson approaches him as a kicker without being quite so reliable. Before Saturday's match, Woodward would have preferred, had they not been injured, Grayson at outside-half and Matt Perry at full- back, with Catt on the substitutes' bench.

Now everything has changed, not perhaps utterly, but changed all the same. Catt made Guscott's try with his delicate cross-kick, and did several other good things as well, with, such is his wont, a few bad things too. Dawson kicked well. Why not leave things as they are?

Why not, indeed! If England continue with their habit of turning away the opportunity of a kick at goal, like Roy Jenkins fastidiously rejecting an over-ripe avocado pear, and kicking to the corner instead, there is a case for not including the most reliable English goal-kicker (though Mark Mapletoft, who is uncertain of his Gloucester place, rivals Grayson in this respect, as he does in others).

Learned commentators spoke approvingly of England "keeping up the momentum". I am not so sure. From none of the ensuing line-outs did they score a try. Nor did South Africa, who even managed to kick the ball dead on one occasion. It only goes to show the power of fashion. In this case, the fashion is as profitless as the craze for yo-yos.

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