Cooke still curses Slam that got away

England's former coach spells out the cruel lessons of history

By Alex Hayes
Saturday 01 April 2000 23:00

The build-up to today's Grand Slam-Wooden Spoon Calcutta Cup decider has been like a Scottish version of Fawlty Towers. On both sides of the border, the chorus has been: "Don't mention the war" - the 1990 Murrayfield war.

Whether they took part in, or simply watched, Scotland's historic 13-7 victory over England 10 years ago, players such as David Sole, Tony Stanger and Matt Dawson have all played the predictable "that was then and this is now" card. Even Clive Woodward has had his say: "Let's not talk about that game. It was 10 years ago - I was young - and most of the current squad were in short trousers," explained the England coach. How boring.

Only one man has been prepared to break the taboo and talk about England's Murrayfield débâcle. "I think there are a lot of parallels," says Geoff Cooke, England's manager between 1987 and 1994. "Like this England side, the 1990 crop had played very, very well; probably as well as we had done in a long time."

England's impressive performances leading up to the 1990 Grand Slam decider in Edinburgh bear an uncanny resemblance to their seemingly unstoppable charge towards the inaugural Six Nations' Championship in 2000. The sequence of matches is identical: Ireland at Twickenham, France away, Wales at home and Scotland away. England's business-like trip to Rome a fortnight ago was the only change to the schedule.

The danger now, as it was then, is that everybody expects England to win in Scotland. "It's a formality, we were told," Cooke says. "The logic said we should have walked that game, but sport doesn't alwaysfollow logic.

"The thing that sticks in my mind about 1990 was that we went up there in confident mood - although we were trying to keep that confidence at a sensible level. We had a practice session at Peebles the day before the game which was outstanding - the perfect practice. There wasn't a ball dropped, not a single mistake made. Afterwards, a lot of Scots left shaking their heads and saying: 'We're going to get murdered'.

"Even Bill McLaren came up to me and said that, in all the years he'd been covering rugby, that was the finest training session he'd ever seen."

By kick-off time, England's steely resolve had melted in the Murrayfield cauldron. "The atmosphere was just incred-ible," says Cooke, who no longer makes the biennial trip north because he deplores the "aggressive, nationalistic and xenophobic" nature of the occasion. "It's difficult to explain, but suffice it to say that England should thank God they have lads like Jason [Leonard] and Mike [Catt], who have experienced the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Murrayfield, in the side. Scotland will be going for England's throat, so let's hope we're ready this time."

Cooke's fit, confident team were hardly under-prepared. Yet the occasion got to them. Scotland's players tackled as if their lives depended on it - Scott Hastings' last-ditch lunge at Rory Underwood epitom-ising the performance.

England were rattled and their young captain, Will Carling, made a number of strange tactical calls. "We did make some poor decisions in certain phases of the game," Cooke admits. "You can call them tactical errors, although people only say something was wrong after a match. They never say that was an outstanding tactical call if it goes right. Hindsight is a wonderful commodity.

"I remember one particular sequence in the first half when we were pounding the Scottish try-line. We had a series of scrums and, as we were getting closer to scoring, the Scots were giving away more and more penalties. Perhaps Simon Hodgkinson [England's full-back, who had been in super-lative form throughout the championship] could have kicked at goal, but there was a strong wind and, even if he had kicked successfully, there is no saying what might have happened thereafter." In the event, Scotland frustrated the England pack and forced the error. A penalty was awarded and the danger was cleared.

Cooke is still annoyed that England allowed the Grand Slam to slip away. He is too pragmatic to let it trouble him unduly but acknowledges his team missed out that day. "I could look at the video today and tell you where we lost the game," he says. "I could even say we should have done this or that, we could have won it here or there. The fact is we just couldn't find a way through."

According to Cooke, England's defeat had a dual effect on the team and its successors. "That loss changed the way we played and thought for years after," he says. "On one hand it made everyone more determined to win some silverware [they completed back-to-back Grand Slams in 1991-92], but on the other it forced us to totally rethink our approach."

England's expansive game and new-found flexibility were killed during those 80 minutes. "We let ourselves down because, when things didn't work out, we weren't able to find a different approach. We were too one-dimensional. That was, and still is, nothing new. It's a fault that has been inherent in English rugby for ever.

"Only recently have I seen a change," Cooke adds. "Clive has moved the players forward and helped them lose some of those long-standing inhibitions. The question rem-ains, though, whether we can perform when the pressure is on. If things aren't working, can we switch to Plan B or C and be effective? I'm still not sure."

Such is the gulf in class between the present England and Scotland teams that Plan A should do the trick.

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