Alan Watkins: Six Nations decider proves how punishing union has become

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The Independent Online

We have been told often enough that rugby is a physical game. But today it makes demands on the players which would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago. The most taxing sport is still, I suppose, professional boxing. Rugby league used to stand very near it. But today, I would guess, union has overtaken league in this respect.

We have been told often enough that rugby is a physical game. But today it makes demands on the players which would have been inconceivable even 10 years ago. The most taxing sport is still, I suppose, professional boxing. Rugby league used to stand very near it. But today, I would guess, union has overtaken league in this respect.

No doubt there are boffins in the sports science departments at Loughborough and elsewhere who could come up with a definitive answer, or try to. But, on the face of it, union is now the more punishing activity. For example, the tackling is as draining, for both or all parties involved, as it is in league, if not more so. In league, however, there is a brief period of respite while the ball is being recycled: in union there is a fierce struggle for possession which can go either way.

In league, the scrum is a joke, a means of restarting the game: in union the front rows are locked in combat, even though these days we rarely see a strike against the head. In league there is no such thing as a line-out: in union it is a part of the game which takes up an inordinate amount of the forwards' energy.

These fairly routine reflections were brought about by the closing stages of Ireland v England. The Irish pack were brave, as they always have been. They were also fit, certainly when judged against some great Irish forwards of the fairly recent past. But they struck me as being out on their feet. It was this – rather than mistakes by such players as Peter Stringer and Geordan Murphy – which was behind the England tries at the end of the match.

Ireland were never going to win this game. But they had a chance of making it a more balanced encounter at the beginning of the second half, when England were only seven points up. Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal, disallowed in what are still mysterious circumstances, provided a further let-off. But then nothing happened, except that England ground them down, largely through the power of their forwards.

In the end, England deserved their Grand Slam, inasmuch as justice has anything to do with these matters. But all the other countries produced some good individual performances.

We all have the Rugby World Cup on our minds. Any Lions tour is far away – all the further because the last one, in Australia, was so disappointing in a variety of ways. Indeed, it is entirely possible that, with four-yearly World Cup competitions and – rugby having at last come to terms with the invention of the jet engine – annual pre-Christmas encounters at Twickenham between England and the other great powers, the Lions will go the same way as the Barbarians or, for that matter, the England v Scotland football fixture.

It is nevertheless interesting to assess the talent that is around. What follows is based on form in the Six Nations' Championship which has just finished.

This means that the front row is necessarily on the provisional side, because numerous specialists were out of action for either the whole or part of the competition: Reggie Corrigan, Robin McBryde, Phil Vickery, Julian White, Keith Wood and Trevor Woodman. Even so, McBride or Wood might find it difficult to dislodge Steve Thompson.

Tom Smith, though he did not have the greatest of seasons by his own high standards, nevertheless did enough to retain his old Lions place at loose-head. Jason Leonard, by contrast, has never shone in a Lions shirt. Besides, I am picking him out of position at tight-head. This is where he played on Sunday. Once again, he had a fine game, at one stage giving a pass of which Jo Maso might have been proud.

The other controversial selection is of Martyn Williams at open-side flanker ahead of Keith Gleeson, Lewis Moody (injured for most of the season) or, of course, Neil Back. I am not making a political choice. I would not dream of doing such a thing. But it seems to me that Williams did enough, game after game, to establish himself as the leading No 7.

I will, however, confess to a bias against Back. If I were in charge of rugby discipline (which thank the Lord I'm not, sir), I would make Judge Jeffreys look like a founder member of the Howard League for Penal Reform. In my opinion Back is lucky to be playing at all, not because of his cheating at last season's Leicester v Munster match, but because he pushed Steve Lander comprehensively to the ground after he had awarded Bath a winning penalty try in the 1996 Pilkington Cup.

Team: G Murphy (Ireland); J Robinson (England), B O'Driscoll (Ireland), W Greenwood (England), B Cohen (England); J Wilkinson (England), B Redpath (Scotland); T Smith (Scotland), S Thompson (England), J Leonard (England), M Johnson (England, capt), M O'Kelly (Ireland), R Hill (England), L Dallaglio (England), M Williams (Wales).

And yet, it might be more effective still to play the England team that won in Dublin en bloc.

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