The team that beat the union

Owen Slot charts the irresistible rise of an immovable force
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AS HE has done many times on the field for England, it was Dean Richards who set the ball rolling. On Sunday morning, Day Two of Life After Carling, Richards announced that, in the circumstances, he was not interested in being England captain. Rob Andrew soon followed suit. All morning, the players' telephones were worked exhaustively and by midday, the 25 members of the squad had been contacted and agreed to a statement asking for the decision to sack Will Carling to be reconsidered. As a display of teamwork, it was as fast and well-organised as anything they had managed all season.

Rarely has player power been asserted with such force, and the England squad's reaction is testimony their unity. "If you are a good team, the sense of belonging can be very very fulfilling," says John Syer, a sports psychologist who works with the Cleveland Browns American football club and the British cycling team. "If the England team had been less successful, then there is a chance they would have crumbled. But there is a long process involved in achieving the sort of unity that team showed."

Indeed, it took a considerable time for the England team to evolve into the unit which is capable of pulling off the sort of coup it did last weekend. In his biography, Carling said: "When I arrived in the team [in 1988], I noticed a tremendous division between the forwards and backs. There was certainly a lack of respect between the two and that is never healthy. If there is no humour underpinning the traditional hostility between the two, there is trouble. Orwin [then captain] publicly criticised the backs. I couldn't believe that. It built up resentment both ways."

Back in 1988, the England rugby team were a less unified force for a number of reasons; there were fewer international matches and less regular squad meetings and training sessions, so the players did not have the same opportunity to bond. But an inconsistent selection policy was primarily to blame. "You'd have 15 individuals trying to do their bit," said Jon Webb, whose seven-year career started in 1987, "because they wanted to keep their place secure. It wasn't necessarily in their interest to do something for the whole team." Gary Rees (26 caps between 1984 and 1991) concurs: "It used to be that you were more in it for yourself. It's much more of a collective thing now."

England's selection policy changed with the arrival of Geoff Cooke and Roger Uttley, the new management team who appointed Carling as captain in November 1988, at the end of their first year in charge. "We gave people a chance to find their form, to go through the highs and survive the lows," Uttley said. "So a bond of trust formed. It took three years for the team spirit to evolve and it has continued since then."

The atmosphere in which this spirit has flourished is sustained in part by mickey-taking and in part by developing a siege mentality. "No one was safe from the jokers," Webb said, "but it all stemmed from familiarity, from surviving common experiences, and that only served to strengthen the unit." It was the media, the players felt, that were laying siege on the team by vigorous and persistent criticism of their tight playing style. So when Carling led the team in turning their backs on the press after the momentous victory in Cardiff in 1991, the team turned as one.

Last week's events show that little has changed. The personnel may be slightly different, but the sarcasm and satire has survived, and the RFU can be perceived as the common enemy. Dewi Morris, even though he is second- string scrum-half, now leads the jesters, Martin Bayfield has joined him and Carling himself is equipped with a poisonous wit. On tour in South Africa in the summer, the team were running along a beach in Durban when Victor Ubogu asked what altitude they were at. He has not been allowed to forget it.

And when anyone threatens the group, on or off the field, they still react as one. The RFU tried it last weekend and came off worse.