James Lawton: Hodgson's creativity opens new doors for Robinson

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The Independent Online

Here we had grown-up, real-life compromise. It was about being who you are rather than who you might just fancy yourself to be.

Half the story of English rugby, after all, is about tormented efforts to make themselves a little bit more glamorous. The other half is about doing what they do best: exerting genuine power, with intelligence and a practical knowledge of their own strengths. Two years ago that was enough to win the World Cup. In two years' time it might just be so again.

That, surely, was the most persuasive message coming out of the destruction of Wales, the reigning champions. Though without the likes of Gavin Henson and Tom Shanklin and Ryan Jones, Wales did show for half a match some of the appealing freedom that marked their dramatic march to the Grand Slam. Then they were put back in their distinctly crumpled box. Whether the All Blacks of Daniel Carter will be so accommodatingly compliant at the next World Cup is of course a vastly different matter, but suddenly, and for the first time since the descent from Mount Olympus in Sydney, the question did seem worth asking.

"I always saw this as a match about winning ... a growing match, one in which you could see where we were going. I think that is what has happened today," said Robinson. Where England were going, it was plain enough, was back to somewhere around their old place - and old significance - in the world game.

That is to represent a power and a discipline and a competitive simplicity which can undermine the confidence of teams of more rounded play and individual skill. If England are classically the Roundhead rugby nation, if while watching them there is an instinctive desire to see their limits at the very least properly tested, there is a point were the drive for more can be self-destructive.

Such, surely, is the potential problem with the English obsession with producing by sheer desire and application at least hints of the panache that other nations like France, Wales and New Zealand draw not from ambition but from their blood.

Even, for example, in the tide of strength and accomplished play selection that drove Wales into the ground early in the second half, there was never quite the moment that illuminated Twickenham so profoundly as when Dwayne Peel took a scalding route through the back of the England line-out and fed Martyn Williams for the try of the game. It was not as though England lacked some fine skill and intuition. Charlie Hodgson once again reminded Twickenham of the shallowness of its reaction to his efforts to replace the heroic Jonny Wilkinson in the wake of the World Cup, and one beautifully cushioned pass out to the thoroughbred Mark Cueto spoke of wonderful subtlety and touch. That, as the pack returned to some former levels of authority and control, had to provoke the thought that, for the time being, was quite enough of that.

For some reason the admirably powerful young Matt Stevens was voted man of the match and while it was undoubtedly true the Bath prop laid down a bone-shaking earnest about what he was likely to do in the future, the decision still seemed perverse. Peel was luminous in defeat and the decision of his coach, Mike Ruddock, to withdraw him could only have been that the scrum-half had pushed himself to his limits in fighting English forward power, but in terms of shaping the game, of inflicting himself at the most vital moments, the prize surely belonged to Hodgson.

Not only has he made himself the star of Twickenham he is surely well on the way to becoming its conscience. The stadium for so long couldn't forgive him for not being Wilkinson, a problem intensified by the pressure on his kicking, but now, as Robinson seeks to widen England's game, there is at last a proper accounting of his talent. Hodgson gives England a creative range that can be applied with a natural footballing intelligence, and it is something that needs to be sharply separated from the old virtue of Wilkinson.

Wilkinson was the hero of the World Cup, no doubt, but watching Hodgson open new doors out on the field you have to be reminded that his creative output was limited indeed. In the final three games of the World Cup, England crossed the try-line fewer times than their opponents. On Saturday against Wales, the team who scored three tries to one in Brisbane in the quarter-final with Wilkinson's team, the try count was six-one in England's favour. That was rather more than a massive statistical adjustment. It spoke of a developing game, a much more comfortable marriage between power and enterprise.

It was also a mark of Hodgson's overall coherence. In English terms, he is plainly an original. He has his own game, his own instincts, and they have stood up magnificently to the most testing phase of English rugby since the possibility of conquering the world first became viable back in the Eighties. But then will he make English rugby sexy? We will know a little bit better in two years time. Meanwhile, though, what could be more ravishing than once again promising to beat the world?

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