Backs to the wall as England's pace attack struggles to break loose

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The Independent Online

Josh Lewsey knows there is a problem, but thinks it can be solved without any radical overhaul of method or personnel; Will Greenwood suspects that if there is a problem, it is not the one currently obsessing rugby's chattering classes. Ben Cohen, meanwhile, is far from convinced there is a problem at all. So there you have it: three England backs, each of them a World Cup winner, with three very different views of what is going on - or rather, what is not going on - in the red rose strikeforce. The indecision appears to be final.

Josh Lewsey knows there is a problem, but thinks it can be solved without any radical overhaul of method or personnel; Will Greenwood suspects that if there is a problem, it is not the one currently obsessing rugby's chattering classes. Ben Cohen, meanwhile, is far from convinced there is a problem at all. So there you have it: three England backs, each of them a World Cup winner, with three very different views of what is going on - or rather, what is not going on - in the red rose strikeforce. The indecision appears to be final.

It is rather less than a year since Clive Woodward's team travelled to Melbourne and, under the closed roof of the Colonial Stadium, tore up a notoriously parsimonious Wallaby defence with such merciless intent that the visitors were instantly installed as favourites to win the World Cup. Greenwood and Cohen scored wonderful tries that night; Lewsey produced the performance of his life on the right wing - dynamic, creative, adventurous, full to overflowing with vim and vigour. Yet England did not revisit those heights when they returned to Australia in pursuit of the Webb Ellis Trophy - somehow, they climbed the mountain without leaving the foothills - and have not done so since.

Leaving aside the World Cup pool games against Georgia and Uruguay, who were so pathetically weak that the matches were little more than semi-opposed training sessions, there was more to endure than to enjoy about England's back play during the tournament. The same might be said for the quality of the attacking work in this Six Nations' Championship. Jason Robinson had a field day against the Italians in Rome, but as Azzurri talent begins and ends with the cauliflower-eared community up front, it did not amount to much. The Scots, no great shakes in any department, cramped England's style so effectively that the champions' tries were the accidental results of comic fumbles and slapstick charge-downs. Whichever way the cake is cut, the champions are out of sync.

Woodward might argue, and presumably does in the privacy of the England team room, that 15 tries in four championship matches is par for the course, if not a shot or two better than level. At the same stage last season, his side were closing in on a Grand Slam having managed only 13 in four outings. Yet two years previously, when the red rose back line really was in its pomp, they accumulated 28 at the rate of seven per game, 20 of them scored by numbers 9 to 15. This great flowering of the talents - the Balshaws and Healeys and Catts were in full bloom, as well as the Greenwoods and Cohens - established England as the most exciting side in world rugby, as well as the most formidable.

By comparison, the 2004 vintage resemble a group of lost souls - formless and shapeless, half a dozen lonely hearts in search of a meaningful relationship. As a back division, they are less frightening now than at any time since the 1999 World Cup. Three years ago, when Iain Balshaw cut the French to ribbons from full-back and England won 48-19 at Twickenham, the Tricolores openly admitted they had been soundly thrashed at their own game. This week, as they prepared for today's Six Nations finale, the same French management found themselves on more familiar ground, talking about the "England war machine" - an expression of their belief that the red rose army have reverted to brutish type.

Lewsey, for one, does not derive too many thrills from a forward-dominated game. "I've heard the criticisms, and in many ways I agree with the points people are making," he said after being chosen to confront Christophe Dominici, one of the arch-romantics of international rugby, at the Stade de France this evening. "I would like to see us play with more width, to commit ourselves more often to moving the ball out rather than back inside. But I believe our problem is a mental one, a confidence issue as much as anything. These are the same players, by and large, who produced that performance in Melbourne last June, and you can't tell me we are incapable of reproducing it.

"Of course the back three want to see more ball, to get more involved in the attacking sense, but while we're demanding this and that, we also have to examine ourselves. When I look at myself in the mirror and ask, 'Am I playing faultless rugby and making the most of my opportunities?', I cannot honestly say that is the case. I'm not sure any of us can. The defeat by Ireland knocked us, definitely, and the danger of an experience like that is the amount of frustration it causes. A side can easily move away from the very things that made them good in the first place. We had to guard against that, which was why we took such a physical approach against Wales. Now, we must move forward. We won't beat France with brute force alone."

Cohen, who plays on the opposite wing to Lewsey, has no problem with brute force - he is, after all, an absolute brute of a threequarter. "We won the World Cup, didn't we?" he said, when challenged on the sudden demise of English expressionism. He seemed rather miffed - far more so than his colleague. "We're still winning our matches, Ireland aside, and my argument rests there. People may moan that we're not playing fancy rugby, but I'd rather play non-fancy rugby and win, any day of the week. Just think back to the World Cup, and ask yourself who played the flashy stuff and scored tries by the dozen. New Zealand and France. And who reached the final? Not New Zealand, and not France.

"Circumstances change. We're world champions, and we're enjoying the feeling of being world champions. At the same time, our opponents are enjoying taking big shots at us. The matches are more intense now, and we have to adapt to that. Anyway, we're a different team in a different situation. If everyone played the same way all the time, rugby would be one bloody boring sport."

On to Greenwood, then, for a midfield aristocrat's overview of the trouble and strife in the back division he has come to define since making his debut in Woodward's first match as England coach, against the Wallabies way back in the autumn of 1997. The Harlequin possesses one of the more formidable rugby intellects of the age and in his view there is a fair bit of nonsense being talked about the issue.

"If you look back at what people consider to be our most complete performances - against Ireland in the Grand Slam match last year, for instance - the fast, flowing rugby that everyone remembers came pretty late," he said. "And that's the way it is in international rugby. Generally speaking, a back line is able to cut loose only after the sustained application of pressure, under which the opposition have cracked. What we became really good at over a period of years was not just wearing down our opponents, but keeping them down. Recently, we've been guilty of letting teams back into games. That's the difference. It's not a case of us misfiring in the backs, as such. It's a case of failing to maintain the pressure we're creating."

That's right, blame the poor old forwards. He has a point, though. The likes of Steve Thompson and Phil Vickery may look formidable as they go through their baby elephant routines in open field, but all too frequently they do it at the wrong times, in the wrong areas of the pitch. There is an obvious lack of structure and discipline about England's approach - a lack that may well be the consequence of Woodward's 15-man, ultra-integrated, everyone-does-it-all vision.

If Greenwood is correct, the heavy mob should concentrate on the bump and grind, leaving the backs free to strut their stuff without undue interference. Should the attacking specialists continue to resemble a bunch of chronic agoraphobics without a sense of direction between them, the coach will know he has a crisis on his hands, just when he needs it least.

England's next Tests are in Dunedin, Auckland and Brisbane. Woodward's first venture to those parts became known as the "tour of hell". If things go bang against France this evening, this summer's trip could be similarly diabolical.

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