Victor in the vanguard

Richard Williams hears tributes for the England prop who gave his side a lift
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The Independent Online
THE WINS for England in Cardiff and Scotland in Paris yesterday set the scene for a enticing finale to the Five Nations championship at Murrayfield in four weeks' time.

"I thought our performance was outstanding," Jack Rowell, the England manager, said after his team's victory. "This is only the second time in 15 visits that an England side has come down here and won. We were planning to spread the ball a bit, but the Welsh put a lot of pressure on our half-backs and stopped us running the ball. In the end I was delighted for the England forwards, because if they can play like that it makes it possible for us to play the 15-man integrated rugby that we all aspire to."

And at last England have players who don't know what it's like to lose in Cardiff unlike generations of their predecessors who endured the terrible 28-year losing streak between 1963 and 1991. Now Tony Underwood, Kyran Bracken, Mike Catt, Martin Johnson, Tim Rodber and Victor Ubogu can think of the Arms Park with unsullied affection - particularly Ubogu, whose try was almost as spectacular as his first-half display of impromptu shorts- changing, a ceremony itself nearly as baroque and protracted as Neil Jenkins's goal-kicking ritual. When Brian Moore retires, Ubogu will take over as the resident character in the team.

"I don't think Victor's feet touched the ground after he scored," his captain, Will Carling, observed afterwards. "Victor will be insufferable tonight," Martin Johnson said. "We're going to have to drag him back to earth."

As for Mike Catt, the marked man turned out to be the unmarked man. According to the conventional wisdom, he was to be the target of the early Welsh assaults. A few bombs from Jenkins's boot in the first few minutes, with the wind swirling, the ball slick from the drizzle and the footing insecure, and we would find out once and for all whether the previously untested South African is indeed an international full-back. Amazingly, Catt finished 80 minutes of unarmed combat against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park with his all-white kit as unsullied as a choirboy's surplice. That was the measure of Wales's failure.

"I thought he was superb," Rowell said, "given the conditions and the fact that he was facing Welsh half-backs renowned for their kicking skills. He was cool and collected, and he took some cracking decisions."

Alan Davies and Ieuan Evans, the Welsh coach and captain, refused to be drawn on their failure to put Catt under real pressure, claiming that they had gone into the game planning to use a variety of tactics. But their strategies were ruined by the injuries to Tony Clement and Nigel Walker, and by the sending-off of John Davies, an incident which led to pure farce.

"Brian Rix should have been out there," said Evans, who realised that he needed a new prop to enable his forwards to scrummage. Great confusion ensued. Evans asked the French referee, Didier Mn, whether such a thing was permissible. "He shrugged his shoulders and said he didn't mind," Evans recalled. He asked Carling if he had an objection. "Not being a scrummager, I told him OK," Carling said. As an insurance policy, Hemi Taylor suddenly developed a crippling hamstring injury while standing quite still. The problem miraculously cleared up when it became obvious that nobody minded if the swap was made, and he trotted swiftly off the field to make way for the new prop, Hugh Williams-Jones.

Davies was "distraught", according to Robert Norster, the Welsh team manager. "Yes," said Alan Davies, "we've got the management of distraught players down to a fine art. We're getting plenty of practice at it."

No such problems for Rowell. "If we can beat Scotland," he concluded, "that will catapult us into the World Cup in exactly the right frame of mind."