Time for flat-track bullies to get away-day returns

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The Independent Online

Among my souvenirs is a handsome Cross pen presented to me by the Independent for attracting the highest number of readers' letters in February 1992. They were in response to a column following the France v England match in Paris on 15 February which England won 31-13.

Among my souvenirs is a handsome Cross pen presented to me by the Independent for attracting the highest number of readers' letters in February 1992. They were in response to a column following the France v England match in Paris on 15 February which England won 31-13.

The game was always bad-tempered, sometimes violent. The French sported two members of the then notorious Bÿgles-Bordeaux front row who wore cricket boxes instead of jockstraps. One of them, the hooker Vincent Moscato, was sent off. He was joined by the prop Gregoire Lascubé, of Agen. After the final whistle the referee, Stephen Hilditch, had to be escorted from the field.

The French were certainly not candidates for canonisation. But nor were the English for that matter. I took the view that Hilditch had leaned too heavily in England's favour and that the French did have some cause for complaint. In particular I cited the penalty try which he awarded England and which began the process of French disintegration.

There was a scrum in the right-hand corner of the pitch. Dewi Morris, the England scrum-half, nudged the ball back into his forwards with his foot. This was grounds for a penalty to France, which would have enabled them to clear their lines. Instead, the referee awarded a penalty try to England.

This I thought unfair, and said as much. English correspondents wrote accusing me of anti-English bias because I was Welsh - some of them in terms that would have engaged the attention of the Race Relations Board had I been the sort of person to bother with such matters. French correspondents wrote to say how pleasant it was to come across some fairness in an English newspaper for a change. And Chris Rea wrote in his column that "if we were all to start disputing referees' decisions several days after the event, we might as well all pack up and go home."

The survivors of that encounter who are still playing top-class rugby are, from England, Jason Leonard and Jeremy Guscott, and, from France, Jean-Luc Sadourny (who came on as a replacement), Sebastien Viars, Alain Penaud and Fabien Galthié. We shall almost certainly see Leonard and Galthié trotting out again in Paris on Saturday, Penaud may put in an appearance as well.

Those were more self-confident days for English rugby, almost entirely because of the formidable pack: in addition to Leonard, Brian Moore, Jeff Probyn, Martin Bayfield, Wade Dooley, Mickey Skinner, Dean Richards and Peter Winterbottom. Which of today's players could win a place in this group? Probably only Martin Johnson (who is not playing on Saturday or for some time afterwards) instead of Bayfield in the second row and Lawrence Dallaglio instead of Skinner.

In recent months the England side have appeared the rugby equivalent of the cricketer Graeme Hick, who was described as "a flat-track bully", because he could knock an average county attack all over the field, amassing a huge score in the process, but was an altogether more diffident character when confronted by Test-class spin bowling and by the nasty, fast stuff. Likewise, England can work miracles against Italy or Ireland but start coming apart against Australia or South Africa.

There is a good deal in this theory, but it does not entirely cover the facts. In 1997 at Twickenham, for example, England fought New Zealand to a 26-26 draw and then, in one of the opening matches of the World Cup, could have beaten them in a game which John Hart, the perhaps unjustly discarded coach, described as one of the best matches he had ever seen.

If there is a pattern, it is that England are less happy away from Twickenham. For myself, I detest the ground. It seems somehow a monument to corporate greed. The crowd are not only partisan - nothing wrong in that - but also largely ignorant of the laws of the game. Nevertheless, they generate a greater enthusiasm, they make more noise, than the old Twickenham crowd ever did in those echoing green-wood and cast-iron stands in which the ghosts of the past flitted and which I loved.

There is little doubt that the England pack can hold their own. The French pack, though written about as immense, were slightly lighter than the Welsh pack at Cardiff. On that occasion, Wales were defeated by the old French virtues of speed over the ground and speed in giving and taking a pass, allied to the new French virtue - if it is a virtue - of using the tackle as an offensive weapon.

England have plenty of ground speed, even if Matt Perry, Austin Healey and Ben Cohen would probably come behind Thomas Castaignÿde, Emile Ntamack and Christophe Dominici. However, what they still lack is speed in their processes of rugby thought.

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