Why England cannot seize the moment

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The Independent Online
Among all the questions which are going to be raised this week in the build-up to Murrayfield's Grand Slam match - and there will be a mind-numbing number - there is one that can be answered already with some certainty. Scotland's rugby players are more likely to rise to the occasion than England's.

Whatever our expectations of the game and the way it will be played, it is the boys in dark blue who are the best bet to exceed them, not Will Carling's ever-so professional troops.

Think not? Then just pause and ponder when was the last time that an England team - any England team, any sport - played better than their supporters dared dream before the game started. You should now be congratulating England supporters on being a remarkably stoic and long- suffering lot who can go for years at a time without too much excitement. The list of possibles is not long, and not many of the recent examples are incontrovertible - in fact, they do not hold water at all.

The rugby union team may have been staggeringly successful in the last few years, but playing above themselves? When? The World Cup quarter-final against Australia is the first, and obvious, contender, but an early try, a dogged rearguard action and a freakish last-gasp drop goal hardly qualify. The result was magnificent, but the performance, although heroically gutsy, was rather less so.

The same is true of the tryless win against the All Blacks at Twickenham in 1993 and most of the other "finest hours". Two exceptions shine - the 1988 Twickenham win against Australia which started it all, and the first Test in South Africa in 1994 - and they did not exactly happen yesterday.

It is tempting to pass over cricket very swiftly - after all, no one can remember the last time an England team played averagely well all the way through a Test match, let alone the last time they excelled, can they? Certainly not the Atherton-Russell rearguard action which saved the second Test in Johannesburg, considering the appalling drivel England served up during the first four days of the match. In fact, though, and ludicrous though it may seem, you could argue that the cricketers have been more thrilling recently than the rugby players - at Lord's against the West Indies last summer when Dominic Cork's amazing appearance on the Test scene was buttressed by a high-class team effort. Before that, though, you have to go back to the first Test win of Graham Gooch's tour to the West Indies in 1989-90.

Football cannot offer much in the way of startling recent memories, either - so it is just as well that the World Cup semi-final against Germany in Italia '90 was as good as it was.

When it comes to the big moment, it seems, the nation of the stiff upper lip usually stiffens up. Relaxation, risk-taking, exploration of talent and flair, in fact everything that might be termed "playing the game" - the reason why anyone took up the sport in the first place - are dumped out of the window, and the mission is to "do a job" or "the business" or some such.

This, we may be sure, is not the language that inspired David Sole's side at Murrayfield in 1990, or Gavin Hastings' in the World Cup in South Africa, or Rob Wainwright's in their wonderful journey this season. More probably, it was a chip. The one you wear on the shoulder, especially when you play England, and even more especially when you are Scottish. There seems to be lots of energy to be found in a chip, too, as England will find out for the umpteenth time when the blue dervishes set about them on Saturday.

Constipation on the grandest stages seems to be a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon thing. It is certainly not the way much of the rest of the world seems to approach its sport, apart from the Argentinian football side who bored their way to the final of Italia '90.

Not many Englishmen ever surmount the problem, but the rugby players could do worse than look at two of the most successful individuals of recent times. Nick Faldo devised a work schedule which would be beyond most of the Murrayfield raiding party with the single aim of being able to produce his greatest golf shots under the greatest pressure. And then there is Linford Christie, who follows the chip theory, mainly using the press and the Americans as his fuel for anger.

Jack Rowell and Will Carling will obviously look for chips to motivate the side before Saturday - the simple one being the way Scotland have been so lauded for playing the rugby England have only talked about this season - but, before they settle too comfortably into the underdog role, they should remember what happened the last time they went into a match as second favourites - they froze completely and New Zealand blew them away within minutes of the start of the World Cup semi-final. Some people just cannot win.