Ken Jones: Victory is Woodward's only friend as style takes back seat to achievement

Rugby World Cup: England may have reached the final but they have done so with a game that has failed to capture the imagination
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The Independent Online

The gloomiest prospect in sport, I think, is to have a vision of something so inherently improbable that a man knows deep in his heart it won't happen. Take, for example the Rugby World Cup, which promised a great deal but has yet to produce a performance that marries efficiency and flair in equal measure.

Repeatedly throughout the tournament, the England coach, Clive Woodward, has made it abundantly clear that entertainment, by which he means artistic merit, matters a great deal less than achievement. Victory is his only friend, a view doubtless shared by the many thousands of English patriots presently whooping it up in the bars and restaurants of Sydney, and the millions who have been following the games on television.

That England were outscored three tries to one by a rejuvenated Wales in the quarter-finals and failed to cross the French line last week when, in admittedly difficult conditions, all their points came from kicking opportunities pragmatically created for Jonny Wilkinson, leaves Woodward and his men short of a display to justify fully the high praise that has been heaped on them in newspapers and across the airwaves.

Amid the euphoria that surrounds England as they prepare for Saturday's final against Australia it is surely asking for trouble to question a method that relies more on discipline and tactical acumen than imagination, but moments to quicken the pulse have been rare.

Of course, England can point out that New Zealand's switch to expansive rugby simply didn't work against Australia; and that France, of whom much was expected, fell apart when put under pressure. You only have ponder those facts for a moment to infer what they imply: a game so structured that an instinct to run for daylight with the ball instead of directly into opponents to create rucks and mauls, is effectively suppressed. "If Webb Ellis meant rugby to be a kicking game he wouldn't have picked up the ball and run with it," an old international said this week.

There is considerably more to Wilkinson's game than unerring accuracy with both feet but it is that special, unmatchable skill that causes Australia concern, their coach, Eddie Jones, recognising that it leaves them vulnerable anywhere within 55 metres of their own line.

I profess no expertise in the technicalities of rugby (even players of past distinction admit that they are at a loss to understand the modern rules), but it does seem to me that a great number of the people who have taken to following England at home and abroad concentrate their thoughts entirely on the scoreboard. The jinks, the sidesteps, the ball-handling skills that have served to make rugby a fascinating, and dare I say it, a romantic game appear to be lost on them.

Among the homilies credited to the the famed gridiron coach Vince Lombardi are, "Winning is not everything. It is the only thing", "Dancing is a contact sport. Football is a hitting sport" and "Happiness is only one thing: lying exhausted in victory". They combine to form a creed that eliminates risk-taking, the lifeblood of any team game.

Unfortunately, to my mind, the technology of sport, has long since acquired a momentum bluntly independent of traditions and the people who set them. Old values are cast aside in the dogged pursuit of victory. Wilkinson's golden boots apart, there is much to admire in Woodward's team, the organisation, unshakeable morale, the will to win and Martin Johnson's immense leadership, but mainly their game has been a solid representation of English virtues.

Something similar was ventured about England's progress to the 1966 football World Cup final under Alf Ramsey. The England manager was able to call upon a core of outstanding players, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Gordon Banks and Ray Wilson, however togetherness was the foundation of success. "England will win the World Cup," Ramsey uncharacteristically announced before a ball was kicked.

From what I have read, and there is plenty of it, Woodward takes nothing for granted. In the light of sporting history this is wise. There are numerous examples of teams who ultimately failed to profit from technical superiority. Hot favourites to win the 1954 World Cup, a great Hungarian team fell at the last hurdle, outwitted by West Germany. The orange glow of Dutch football in 1974 was extinguished by German thoroughness in the final.

When the blood, sweat and cheers of the 2003 Rugby World Cup have been strained through a computer and reduced to columns of figures in agate type, the thoughtful historian may have this to say: "It was the year when style took a back seat, when winning was all. The year of winning ugly."