England's gluttonous feast leaves game with a bitter taste

England 70 - Canada 0
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The Independent Online

Asked to identify the good parts of Canada's game at Twickenham on Saturday, Andy Robinson thought long and hard before replying: "I thought their two-man line-out worked well." As this was the equivalent of Neville Cardus reviewing a performance of Wagner's "Ring" by the Berlin Philharmonic and praising the bloke on the triangle, we can take it that England's new coach was not overwhelmingly impressed by the North Americans on their fourth, and by far their most insipid, visit to London on rugby business.

The union game cried for Romania when they shipped God's amount of points at the same venue in 2001, and it is crying for the Canadians now. Ric Suggitt, the visitors' wonderfully good-humoured coach, may have made light of his diplomatic refusal to summon the best of his full-time professionals from their European clubs - "It's like seeing a fancy car drive past your house; the car isn't yours, but life moves on," he said with a shrug of the shoulders - but he also made points that should cut the International Rugby Board and the more prosperous national unions to the quick.

"How do we improve our game? It's pretty difficult when my players have two Tests in seven days and then don't see each other for six months," he remarked. "Was there any value in what happened out there? Yes, I think there was. I'd love to play England 20 times a year, because we'd get better match by match. But as I don't get to spend five consecutive days with the squad unless we're actually on tour somewhere, the reality is that it would be better for as many Canadians as possible to find clubs in Britain, France and Italy.

"They would spend their working lives playing rugby, rather than playing rugby outside their working lives, and when they came back to us they would bring all their experience with them. As things stand, it's the only way forward for us."

Unless and until the IRB and its more influential constituent parts agree to forget the bottom lines of their own balance sheets for once and throw some meaningful money in the direction of what are now described as the "second tier" nations - a clumsy phrase, but so much less patronising than "developing countries" - international union will soon be faced with the same problem as that of international rugby league: that is to say, an unbridgeable chasm which separates a self-perpetuating élite from the common herd. Canada, Japan, Romania... all three were ripped up for loo-paper over the weekend, and none received so much as a brass farthing in gate money for their trouble. Quite how the people who run this sport have the nerve to go to church on a Sunday is a mystery.

It may well be that Suggitt gets his reluctant way and sees the best of his young crop of have-nots picked off by the haves. If the major European concerns have any sense at all, they will prepare contracts in the names of the following: Pat Fleck, a 25-year-old scrum-half from Vancouver; Josh Jackson, a 24-year-old lock from Nanaimo; and Stan McKeen, a 22-year-old loose forward from Victoria who might have been forged in the rugby fires of Auckland or Pretoria. All three made the most of very little at the weekend, McKeen roaming around the old cabbage patch with a rugged determination reminiscent of the young Al Charron, Jackson keeping the Canadians alive with a steady stream of line-out possession and Fleck, consistently in peril from a pigs-in-clover England back row, scrapping and scrambling like a man possessed. All three made contributions far beyond the call of duty.

And where did it get them? Nowhere fast. The Canadian scrum, a foundation stone of their game in the days of Eddie Evans and Dan Jackart, was a desperate liability here - out-muscled, out-shoved and out-classed. England's set-piece dominance allowed the pack in general, and Andy Hazell in particular, to spend a foot-loose and fancy-free afternoon in pursuit of easy pickings.

Quick, clever and ravenously hungry, Hazell was exceptional on his international debut. In a match so depressingly one-sided that no serious question about this fresh-faced England team could conceivably be answered, the Gloucester breakaway at least threw a spanner into the selectorial works ahead of this week's set-to with the Springboks. Promoted to the starting line-up when Joe Worsley withdrew with a leg injury, he could scarcely have done more to defend his position. "Apart from anything else, he is a major asset in defence," said Robinson's closest confidante, Phil Larder. Quite how he reached such a conclusion on the basis of Saturday's events was not entirely clear. Presumably, the training told him more than the playing.

There were moments to enjoy from the Sale-driven back division, not least Mark Cueto's first try at this level - an absolute diamond of a score, unearthed by Charlie Hodgson, cut by Jason Robinson and mounted by the debutant on the right wing. Hodgson, seemingly armed with a protractor for a brain, tormented the Canadians with all manner of oblique angles, some of them so devious that his colleagues were left every bit as bewildered as everyone else. Sadly, the outside-half's marksmanship was not up to much. He did, however, manage to hit Scott Young, the referee, full in the face with a kicking tee as he hurled it away in disgust at fluffing yet another conversion, so his performance was not entirely blighted by inaccuracy.

Cueto was excellent, once he started busying himself by moving off his wing; Robinson was full of his usual tap-dancer's trickery; Henry Paul produced a couple of sublime defence-splitting passes after a quiet beginning to his first start in an England shirt. Mike Tindall blunderbussed his way through the Canadian midfield for a pastime, Josh Lewsey bagged himself a couple of tries with sharp finishes in the left corner. But in the great scheme of things, so what? The words "shooting", "fish" and "barrel" sprang to mind as early as the eighth minute, when Robinson opened the red-rose account, and lingered there until minute 80.

On Saturday, the England forwards will be confronted by a posse of Springboks altogether more threatening than this piecemeal band of Canadians. Hodgson will be hunted by the likes of Schalk Burger and Joe van Niekerk rather than the lonely McKeen; Paul will attempt to work his minor miracles with De Wet Barry and Marius Joubert wrapped around his windpipe. Only under these circumstances we will discover something useful about Robinson's England. The evidence of this game can only be described as inadmissible.

England: J Robinson (Sale, capt); M Cueto (Sale), M Tindall (Bath), H Paul (Gloucester), J Lewsey (Wasps); C Hodgson (Sale), A Gomarsall (Gloucester); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester), A Hazell (Gloucester). Replacements: A Sheridan (Sale) for White, 51; B Cohen (Northampton) for Robinson, 51; W Greenwood (Harlequins) for Hodgson, 56; B Kay (Leicester) for Grewcock, 56; A Titterrell (Sale) for Thompson, 63; H Vyvyan (Saracens) for Borthwick, 69.

Canada: D Daypuck (Castaway Wanderers); D Moonlight (University of Victoria), R Smith (Brampton Beavers), M Di Girolamo (Aurora), S Richmond (DeA Dragons); E Fairhurst (University of Victoria), P Fleck (Meralomas); K Tkachuk (Glasgow, capt), A Abrams (Castaway Wanderers), F Gainer (Dublin University), J Jackson (Leonessa), M Burak (UBC Old Boy Ravens), J Cudmore (Grenoble), C Yukes (Agen), S McKeen (Pacific Pride). Replacements: S O'Leary (Meralomas) for Cudmore, 23; G Cooke (Benevento) for Gainer, 48; M Lawson (Velox Valhallians) for Abrams, 48; J Cannon (Coventry) for Moonlight, 56; C Strubin (Capilano) for McKeen, 65; D Spicer (University of Victoria) for Fairhurst, 74; D Pletch (Oakville Crusaders) for Tkachuk, 78.

Referee: S Young (Australia).

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