England's wealth of talent may be at expense of Celts

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The Independent Online

England v Scotland used to be a great sporting occasion. The nation was transfixed. People who normally showed no interest in the game tuned in specially for the occasion. I refer, of course, to the football match that was played annually either at Hampden Park, or at Wembley Stadium.

England v Scotland used to be a great sporting occasion. The nation was transfixed. People who normally showed no interest in the game tuned in specially for the occasion. I refer, of course, to the football match that was played annually either at Hampden Park, or at Wembley Stadium.

Now it has gone, hardly remembered, a casualty of that darkest of dark ages, the day before yesterday.

Commentators blame the violence of the crowds. But the contests among Wales and Northern Ireland have gone the same way. There was no trouble at these matches. They are victims not so much of the violence of the fans as of the changes in the game itself.

Watching England pile up another huge score on Saturday I wondered, for the first time, whether rugby's Six Nations' Championship might tread the same downward path. Others have been wondering for much longer. Some functionaries in the Rugby Football Union (as the English Rugby Union somewhat conceitedly terms itself) have long wanted England, possibly France as well, to separate from the so-called Celtic nations.

At the beginning of the present competition the Australian coach, Rod Macqueen, made the same suggestion, and was comprehensively denounced, as he is being still. We had the best and most exciting rugby competition in the world, thank you very much. We did not intend to change it on the say-so of some uppity Aussie.

Three or four years ago I took the same view. England were not then supreme. They had an annual fight with France which could go either way. There was hope for Scotland and Ireland. And there was hope for Wales as well under their new coach, Graham Henry. What has happened in the admittedly short succeeding period? France have gone backwards under their grim new coach, Bernard Laporte, despite their victories over New Zealand at Twickenham in the World Cup and, more recently, in Marseilles. Wales have flattered to deceive, as the racing writers put it. Scotland have made distinct progress, as they showed by catching up with Wales at Murrayfield and by bothering England for about 10 minutes at Twickenham. Ireland have come on like a Celtic saint floating across the Irish Sea, notwithstanding the unaccountable omission of such England-based players as Geordan Murphy and Darragh O'Mahony.

England, however, have placed themselves in a different class. The mathematician G H Hardy, a follower of cricket, used to say there was a top class and, above it, a Bradman class. England are now very near to being in the top class. But would they have beaten some of the great sides of the past: Brian Lochore's 1967 All Blacks, the 1973 Barbarians who beat the All Blacks, the Lions of 1971 and 1974, the Welsh Grand Slam winners of the 1970s?

J P R Williams was not as fast as Iain Balshaw but just as penetrating a full-back. Gerald Davies was as elusive as Jason Robinson and a better footballer but not so powerful. Few players of that era were stronger than their successors today. An exception was John Bevan. J J Williams was as fast as anyone in the present England side. There was a distinct Welsh superiority at half-back, where Barry John, later Phil Bennett and Gareth Edwards were a notch or two above Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Dawson.

The England midfield is, however, superior, for Wales selected some very stodgy centres in the great days. Among the forwards there is no competition. Wales's premier line-out expert, the great Delme Thomas, was, after all, only 6ft 3in.

A true comparison is impossible, not only because the players are taller, heavier, stronger and, above all, fitter but also because the game has changed. Ian McGeechan, the Scotland coach, said after Saturday's match that rugby union was now at its peak and presented a challenge to rugby league.

Just so. That is part of the trouble. A lot of rugby union - to be fair, this was not altogether so at Twickenham - consists of big men bumping violently into other big men. Paradoxically, it was a former league player, Robinson, who most closely recaptured the spirit of the old union game.

In Robinson, Austin Healey, Ben Cohen, the injured Dan Luger and a redrafted Balshaw, the England coach, Clive Woodward, can now afford to permute from no fewer than five wings of Lions standard. He has a similar choice in some other, though not all, positions. Such a luxury of talent does not sprout from the earth, or from enthusiasm only. It derives also from the concentration of wealth in England. This is why England v Scotland at Twickenham may yet go the way of England v Scotland at Wembley.

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