Alan Watkins: Captain's mission to lift England gloom

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No doubt because he was as keen to have a rest from politics as I was, at the recent Liberal Democrat conference Sir Menzies Campbell flatteringly asked my prediction for the Six Nations Championship.

Sir Menzies, I should explain, is an enthusiastic follower of the game. As a runner he was described as "the fastest white man in the world". He once turned out in the Middlesex Sevens. He could probably have played on the wing for Scotland if he had put his mind to it. He would almost certainly get into the Scottish side today.

We both agreed that Scotland were unlikely to carry off the championship this season, though he considered they were "getting better''. I plumped for Ireland, more to keep the conversation going than because I had given any serious thought to the matter.

But then, Ireland ended last season with, on form, what would be the two first-choice Lions centres, a serviceable pack and, in David Humphreys and Ronan O'Gara, the luxury of being able to choose between two outside-halves who could kick goals. So it was not a wholly foolish nomination. However, Ireland have the habit of winning matches no one expected them to win and losing those they should by rights have won. There is no reason to believe that this pattern will change in the months ahead.

The salient characteristics of the season so far have been the pessimism in England and the optimism in my own native land. Both may be exaggerated, in that they may bear little relationship to rugby reality. But of the existence of these feelings there is no doubt. And both are easy to understand.

In the 1990s England built up what was, for rugby, a mass and predominantly ignorant following, constructed around the new Twickenham stadium, the singing of "Swing low...'', and the elevation of a few "personalities''. These started with Will Carling, continued with Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson, and culminated in the new captain, Jonny Wilkinson. It was Wilkinson's absence last season and, until quite recently, the doubts about his future which were among the principal causes of the pessimism.

There are good reasons for making him captain. The simplest is that he is sure of his place in the side. And of how many other England players can that be said? Johnson and Dallaglio have retired from international rugby, Ben Cohen cannot get into the Northampton first team, while Matt Dawson has been stranded somewhere in outer space in the universe inhabited by the acting England coach, Andy Robinson.

Apart from Wilkinson, about the only player to be sure of his place is Jason Robinson. But though he may be certain of his place, there is no certainly about his position. For is it to be at full-back, as it is with his club, Sale, or on the wing or, most adventurously, in the centre? The wise men of the game are still disputing these difficult questions.

There is little doubt that Wilkinson will be kicking as well as ever. My only doubt, which may be misplaced, concerns his tackling. I am of the generation which believed that outside-halves were not expected to tackle, especially if they were gifted players. They were excused tackles, much as some soldiers were excused boots in the Army. It was a job for the open-side wing forward.

But not only are outside-halves now expected to tackle: Wilkinson actually seems to enjoy the activity. It may be - I hope I am wrong - that his injury has deprived him of the extra ounce of confidence and that he will come to resemble the genuinely fast bowler who injures his back and thereafter bowls fast-medium.

Another reason for English pessimism lies in the disappointing summer tour of Australia and New Zealand. After a World Cup campaign and the Six Nations Championship, to say nothing of the other strains to which leading players are now subject, it was a crazy trip to make, motivated solely by greed, as I wrote in this column before it took place.

Wales, more sensibly, went to Canada, but what seemed to me equally crazed was that the new coach, Mike Ruddock, deliberately left Martyn Williams behind with the strict instruction to put on a bit of weight. He appears to be obsessed by size, as so many coaches are these days.

However, I thought he was quite sensible to conduct interviews for the captaincy, which went to Gareth Thomas, now of Toulouse, who was not perhaps as sure of his place as Wilkinson is of his: presumably, he is now. I wish him well, though I have seen more false dawns in Welsh rugby than there are in the average B-movie Western.