England shine but World Cup prospects are still left in the shadows

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The Independent Online

There is nothing to be done about it, but we shall not be able to enjoy rugby properly until after the World Cup next year. By this I mean that we are unable to judge matches on their own merits. We are like the person at the party, always looking over someone's shoulder to see whether anybody more interesting has come into the room.

There is nothing to be done about it, but we shall not be able to enjoy rugby properly until after the World Cup next year. By this I mean that we are unable to judge matches on their own merits. We are like the person at the party, always looking over someone's shoulder to see whether anybody more interesting has come into the room.

Saturday's match at Twickenham was an illustration. As a game, it was of the highest class, one of the very best. But what we all wanted to know was what it told us about the prospects in Australia in 2003.

Let us begin with a puzzle. Will Greenwood played well until he was injured, while Ben Johnston did not disgrace himself as a substitute. Mike Tindall was generally agreed to have had one of his best matches for England. Jonny Wilkinson did everything that was asked of him, scored a try and won the "Man of the Match" award.

I was not entirely sure whether he was the personal choice of Stuart Barnes, the Sky commentator, or the majority choice of those members of the crowd able to send text messages. Perhaps he was the choice of both.

If we are to have such awards at all – and I regard them as an unnecessary – mine would have gone to Ben Cohen, who outstripped the New Zealand defence to score what could have been (but was not) a spirit-breaking try, and saved the match for England with his tackle on Ben Blair.

But perhaps the real match-saver was Ben Kay, who stole the ball on a New Zealand throw-in five yards from the England line in the closing seconds. However, as he had been on the field for only 20 minutes, the award could scarcely have gone to him.

I do not mention Cohen by inadvertence. James Simpson- Daniel was also acknowledged to have had a good game. So here we have five of them – an outside-half and entire threequarter line – who are all supposed to have played very well. But simultaneously we are told that they were lacking in pace and elusiveness, guile and invention, all qualities in which the New Zealand backs were their superior.

I suppose the circle can be squared by saying that, while the England backs did well within their own limitations, those limitations were not recognised by the New Zealand backs. It has been suggested that, to give more zip to the England back division, Simpson-Daniel should be moved to centre – even that he should be joined there by Jason Robinson. This would provide a midfield pairing which would have been considered on the light side even 20 years ago, before the age when centres began to be built like flankers or, sometimes, props.

And what, if that happened, would become of England's central rock, Greenwood? Clive Woodward, the England manager, is an adventurous soul, as he showed by moving Robinson to full-back in the first place. But I would not expect him to do anything too fanciful yet; rather, to confine himself, if he does anything, to restoring Mike Catt to his old position inside Greenwood.

There is one difficulty about New Zealand back play. It is a difficulty not only for opposing sides but for referees as well. It is, of course, obstruction. All Black open-side flankers have long been famous for being able to spend an entire match in an offside position – a technique emulated here particularly, perhaps, in Scotland. Today we have the entire New Zealand pack wandering about the field with a clear (though cleverly concealed) intention of obstructing the opposition.

In Zurich Premiership matches I have seen referees regularly penalise doubtful or manifestly accidental pieces of obstruction; whereas at Twickenham more flagrant examples by New Zealand went unpunished. This is clearly an area of play which the referees have to sort out among themselves before the World Cup.

For the moment, we have a provisional top three: 1 New Zealand, 2 England, 3 France. South Africa are clearly not the force they were; we shall know more about Australia in five days' time; while Ireland are pressing for promotion to the top five.

I should not underestimate France's chances of overtaking England. The England back row were certainly a success against New Zealand. But the French back row were an even greater success against South Africa. François Gelez, left-footed likewise, is as reliable a kicker as Wilkinson, if not more so.

The new, young wings Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans could each give Doug Howlett a run for his money. I am looking forward as much to France v New Zealand in Marseille as I am to England v Australia at Twickenham.

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