England out to emulate Beaumont's band

As Woodward's men go for the Grand Slam in Scotland on Sunday they evoke memories of the revered 1980 red rose team
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The Independent Online

Grand Slam celebrations do not, by their very nature, lend themselves to total recall, but Bill Beaumont has managed to retain at least some detail of the aftermath of England's summit-scaling victory over the Scots at Murrayfield 20 years ago. "The team were mobbed all night by ecstatic supporters," he reminisced, dredging up snapshots of memory taken through the distorting lens of a second row-sized hangover. "But at one stage during the evening, Fran Cotton, Tony Neary and I slipped away to a bar for a quiet drink. There we talked about the black days of 1976, when we lost every game and no one wanted to know us. And we savoured the moment because we realised it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

If there is an odds-on chance of Matt Dawson's millennial vintage carrying out an equally ruthless job on Scotland on the self-same rectangle of turf this coming Sabbath, there is an equally high probability that they will emulate the brand of steel-reinforced 15-man rugby that put Beaumont's outfit ahead of the European pack. This is not quite a case of déjà vu, though; Edinburgh's Sunday closing hours will make a quiet drink almost as hard to find as a noisy one and, unlike their revered predecessors, these particular red roses can expect many more days in the sun.

By the time the 1980 side re-crossed Hadrian's Wall on the long trip home after that 30-18 win, the degenerative process had already set in. Neary and Roger Uttley, the thirtysomething flankers, had won their last caps for their countries and, although he did not know it at the time, Cotton would make only one more appearance in England white. Beaumont's career was also slipping away - 22 months on, he would call it quits on the specialist advice of a neurologist - while John Horton, the clever little outside-half from Bath, had a mere five games left. Uncle Bill's brigade were not especially long in the tooth (the average age of the side was 27, as opposed to 25 now), but they unravelled in an abnormally short period of time.

Win or lose this weekend, Dawson's charges have much more of a future, for as many as 13 of the starting line-up must fancy their chances of making it all the way to the next World Cup in 2003. Of the others, only Jason Leonard is obviously in his dotage; maybe this will be his last championship appearance, maybe not. True, Neil Back is, at 31, the most venerable of England's back-row triumvirate and, in this sense at least, the mirror image of Neary, his open-side ancestor, circa 1980. Back is not, however, even close to retirement. A sober professional long before either sobriety or professionalism became part of the rugby zeitgeist, he is good for another two seasons at least.

There are, nevertheless, some uncanny parallels between the respective campaigns. In 1980, when England ran the Irish off their feet at Twickenham in the opening fixture, two players made international debuts: Phil Blakeway, the Gloucester prop, and a certain Clive Woodward. At the outset of this tournament, Woodward himself capped a brace of newcomers in Mike Tindall and Ben Cohen. The venue? Twickenham. The opposition? Ireland. The result? Not even close. In '80, England went on to win an intense battle in Paris and then beat Wales in London before heading north. Dawson and company have plotted a similar route this time, with a weekend in Rome thrown in for good measure.

Study the respective loose trios and a pattern emerges: if, in order to establish themselves as a breakaway unit of genuine world class, the 1980 threesome underwent a rite of passage early in the competition, so too did this contemporary collection. Uttley, Neary and John Scott had to dig deep to quell the Irish trio of John O'Driscoll, Fergus Slattery and Willie Duggan, while Back, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio were tested to the limit by Abdel Benazzi, Olivier Magne and Fabien Pelous at Stade de France.

Nor do the common denominators end there. Twenty years ago, Steve Smith was a highly physical, if limited, scrum-half with an honours degree in calculated provocation and a Phd in bare-faced cheek. This weekend, Dawson, similar in style but fleeter of foot, will indulge his talent for infuriating the opposition and, more likely than not, land one or more of them in the sin-bin. In 1980, Dusty Hare was the most dependable goal-kicker in the tournament. This season, England's Jonny Wilkinson has been the form marksman.

And then there is the Woodward connection, the umbilical cord linking both sides. He has barely changed, either in appearance or outlook, over the span of years; as a player, he was imaginative, innovative and, as often as not, spectacularly scatty, a description that neatly sums up his two and a half years as national coach. In the 1980 Grand Slam match, he decided that the best way to draw the sting from a pressurised occasion was to run the ball and run it wide. He duly created early tries for John Carleton and Mike Slemen and ensured that the Scots would spend the rest of the afternoon playing catch-up. No one seriously expects a change of strategy this time.

When Beaumont was chaired off the old Murrayfield with those great bear's paws of his clenched in jubilation, England had waited 23 years to achieve a clean sweep. Successful campaigns have been more frequent since then, of course: 1991 and 1992 saw back-to-back Slams and there was another in 1995. But Woodward is uncomfortably aware that the red rose army have fired more blanks than bullets in the professional era, despite long periods of supremacy. In this less patient sporting age, a five-year gap between glittering prizes is five years too long.

As Cotton, Uttley and the rest fought their way down the tunnel after their great victory, Alan Tomes, the Scottish lock, asked Beaumont to swap jerseys. "On this special occasion, I declined as politely as I could," recalled the captain. "I explained that I had waited all my life for that one moment of triumph, and that I doubted whether I would ever be fortunate enough to enjoy a repeat performance. I wanted to keep and treasure that jersey until the day I died." Few of the current team have suffered as Beaumont did in the dark days of the 70s, but all will understand where he was coming from that day. Like 15 March 1980, 2 April 2000 is an end in itself.

1980 v 2000: HOW THE ENGLAND VINTAGES COMPARE

THE BUMP AND GRIND

As a scrummaging pack, the 1980 vintage was incomparably better. Cotton and Wheeler would have walked into any World XV, while Phil Blakeway was, in Bill Beaumont's words, "crucial to our success". The line-out issue is more complicated: lifting is now part of the game, and anyone attempting to lift Maurice Colclough would have left the field with a double hernia. One-nil to the oldies.

THE WIDE BOYS

John Carleton and Mike Slemen were worthyLions: Slemen, indeed, was probably the finest defensive wing of his generation. But Carleton scored only seven tries in 26 internationals, while Slemen scored eight in 31. Ben Cohen, faster than both, has already claimed five in four outings, while Austin Healey is the most accomplished utility back in Europe. Too tight to call.

THE CREATIVE SPIRITS

Mike Catt is beginning to blossom in his optimum position of inside centre, while Mike Tindall has looked perfectly at home in international company without setting the Thames on fire with his attacking brilliance. As a pair, however, they do not quite stack up against Paul Dodge and Clive Woodward in their pomp. Their nice guy, nasty guy routine was the best since Davies and Butterfield.

THE GRAND DESIGN

Coaching was still in its infancy 20 years ago: strategic policy was formulated on the hoof, or, in Beaumont's case, on the deck at the bottom of a ruck. The 1980 team was full of pragmatic Test veterans who generally favoured a tight approach, while the current side have bought into Woodward's new-age vision. On balance, the 2000 boys are more fun to watch, if less dependable.

THE BLEEP TEST

No contest. Roger Uttley was the fittest forward to play for England in almost a century of international competition, but would have been left for dead by Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio, whose conditioning levels are positively stratospheric. The 1980 side could slow the game to a standstill.

When the 2000 team slow things down, it is from 100mph to a mere 99.5.

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