Alan Watkins: Red Rose margin of victory is only interest for Welsh

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The Independent Online

It may be my fault, or it may be that the whole game has changed, but it seems to me that the England v Wales match has lost its savour. It used to be, without question, the outstanding fixture in the rugby calendar, rivalled only by the visits of the southern hemisphere countries - rarer then than they are today - to a wood-and-corrugated iron Twickenham and an even more ramshackle Cardiff Arms Park.

It may be my fault, or it may be that the whole game has changed, but it seems to me that the England v Wales match has lost its savour. It used to be, without question, the outstanding fixture in the rugby calendar, rivalled only by the visits of the southern hemisphere countries - rarer then than they are today - to a wood-and-corrugated iron Twickenham and an even more ramshackle Cardiff Arms Park.

People might talk about England v Scotland as a great fixture, the so-called Calcutta Cup. But the excitement was largely factitious, confined to a few Scotsmen from Edinburgh and an even smaller number of public school-educated Englishmen. In fact the only person I have ever met who was at all romantic about the match was the politician Iain Macleod, who had a foot in both camps, though he liked to regard himself as a Scotsman.

England v Wales, by contrast, aroused a genuine enthusiasm in both countries. It does so no longer, certainly not in the same fashion. It is in danger of going the same way as England v Scotland at football. This football match, whether played at Wembley or at Hampden Park, Glasgow, used to be the second highest peak of the season, the top being, of course, the Cup final. Today it is not played at all. It is gone, disappeared. I am not predicting that England v Wales at rugby will vanish down a similar plughole. But it is not the match it was.

The reason is not far to seek. It is not my perception, or that the game of rugby has changed but, rather, that the result is seen, not least in Wales, as a foregone conclusion: a win for England, the only debate being about the margin of the victory.

Wales have not won since 1999 at Wembley. This counted as a home fixture for them, because what is now the Millennium Stadium was being built. The Welsh supporters took to Wembley as they never have to Twickenham and seemed perfectly at home there. England were deprived of the Grand Slam after Lawrence Dallaglio, the captain then as he will be again on Saturday, decided to kick a penalty into touch rather than go for three points, which would have put England out of Wales' reach.

Somehow Wales managed to get the ball to the other end of the field, Scott Quinnell broke from a line-out, and Scott Gibbs scored near the posts after evading several England defenders. Neil Jenkins kicked the conversion - it is a measure of his talent that, in difficult circumstances, no one thought he would miss it - and Wales won the match. Gibbs is by now thoroughly sick of recounting the circumstances of his feat, and considers the try he scored for St Helens in a rugby league Cup final a superior effort on his part.

It would be unfair to say that Wales have gone downhill since then. The 1990s were hardly a golden age for them - even if they did win the Championship in 1994 on points difference, the first season for this new arrangement. Nevertheless, the three players that I mentioned in connection with Wales' last win over England illustrate some of the difficulties which the retiring coach, Steve Hansen, has had to confront.

Thus Stephen Jones is a good outside-half. Some, indeed, would maintain that as an all-round player he is Jenkins' superior. But as a place-kicker he lacks Jenkins' metronomic boot. No doubt he would have converted Gibbs' try with equal ease. However, the Wales-supporting section of the crowd would not have been equally confident of his success.

Gibbs, unlike Jenkins, has retired not only from international rugby but from the game completely. No one can reproach him, for captaining Neath-Swansea Ospreys can hardly have been a bed of roses. Iestyn Harris as his replacement in the Wales side (after some toing and froing about his best position) is a more constructive player. He may even be a more penetrating centre than Gibbs ever was. What he does not do is inspire the same fear in the opposition.

The biggest loss is undoubtedly that of Quinnell. Though he is not tall by the standards of a modern No 8, he has the capacity, shared by only a few - Dean Richards comes to mind - to inspire not only a whole pack but an entire side. It is reported that Mike Ruddock, the newly appointed Wales coach, is trying to entice him back into the international game.

But why should Quinnell oblige? He has done it all. The only thing left for him now is to win the Heineken Cup for Llanelli Scarlets. And why, when you come down to it, should he do any favours for the man who mysteriously supplanted the Scarlets coach, Gareth Jenkins, in the eyes of that strange body the Welsh Rugby Union?

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