England must start climb towards Grand Slam summit

Six Nations' Championship: Woodward's side need to raise their level against Scotland and look to free-running full-back to enhance options

Chris Hewett
Saturday 22 March 2003 01:00
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It is more than four years since any Scot other than Duncan Hodge, the hit-and-miss outside-half from the Edinburgh club, registered a single point against England on Calcutta Cup day – and Hodge, bless him, will not be at Twickenham this afternoon, having forfeited his international place after last summer's spectacularly unsuccessful tour of North America. So who will do the scoring for the visitors this time? Answers on a postcard, please...

England are such ridiculously hot favourites to register their 21st consecutive victory on home territory that potential punters are demanding asbestos betting slips. One leading bookmaker had Martin Johnson's hugely experienced side at 1-50, which borders on the insulting in a two-horse race. But then, precious few rugby folk outside the Scotland camp can come up with a single logical reason why the outsiders should emulate their feat of 1983 and actually win a game in London; indeed, few are willing to entertain the notion that the Scots will make it into double figures on the scoreboard.

This is not because there is anything fundamentally wrong with the Scottish pack, which boasts three players – Tom Smith, Jason White and Simon Taylor – who command the complete respect of the England coaching team, and a couple of Lions, Gordon Bulloch and Scott Murray, who can perform a decent trick or two when their stars are properly aligned. They scrummage well enough, they are fiercely competitive in the line-out and their rucking is as accomplished as any in the world game. If forwards win matches, as is commonly supposed, the Scots should not be scratching around for results.

But as Clive Woodward, the England coach, pointed out yesterday, international rugby is no longer the compartmentalised business of eras past, but fast and fluid and full of attacking variation. And that, in a nutshell, is the Scottish problem. They could easily hoover up 50 per cent of the ball today – they managed it against England at Murrayfield last season, as did the Italians at Twickenham 13 days ago – but without some meaningful firepower out wide, it will mean little or nothing to them.

If two or three of the Scottish forwards might have an even-money shot at making England's match-day squad, none of their backs would have a snowball's chance in hell of doing anything of the sort. Bryan Redpath and Chris Paterson aside, they would struggle to make the England A team. Woodward's charges demonstrated last season that with 30 per cent of the ball, they are 25 points better than their oldest rivals. Assuming they do a little better on the possession front today – as they should, with Martin Johnson and Neil Back restored to fitness – they will be expected to win by a big margin.

Yet England, one victory short of another Grand Slam occasion in Dublin, have not dropped too many jaws with their pyrotechnical brilliance in this championship. Their performance against France was no more than efficient, their display in Wales barely that good apart from some fireworks at the start of the second half. As for the Italy match... the least said, the better. Woodward denies that he spent much of the second period of that game with his head in his hands: "I was looking down at my monitor," he insisted. Why on earth anyone would have wanted to watch an action replay of England's rugby that day will remain one of life's more impenetrable mysteries.

Assuming the Irish win in Cardiff today – they have not lost there since the last Ice Age – England will require a mighty step up at Lansdowne Road a week tomorrow, and they would be wise to begin climbing this afternoon. There is no shortage of points to be proved. It will be fascinating to see how Jason Robinson copes with his return to the wing after his lengthy, curate's-egg spell at full-back. Up front, both Steve Thompson, the outsized Northampton hooker, and Ben Kay, the line-out specialist from Leicester, need to show rather more than they did against the wonderfully cussed Italians.

The two Midlands forwards will be among those best placed to assess whether the Scottish desire is as deep as Jim Telfer, their director of rugby, suggested in his challenging statements in Edinburgh on Thursday. "I think our forwards have taken those comments on board," said Woodward, referring to Telfer's verbal swipe at the ageing English pack and his announcement that the Scots would seek to play a more aggressive style of rugby. "There is some history to this game, as there is when England and Scotland meet in any sport, and while we don't talk about it as loudly as they do north of the border, we make our views known in the team room."

Woodward will certainly express his views if England fail to find their way out of second gear. England's brainless defeat in the wind and rain of Murrayfield in 2000 still annoys the hell out of him, and he has not entirely forgotten the wake-up call his side received at Twickenham the previous season, when the Scottish midfield of Gregor Townsend, John Leslie and Alan Tait matched their hosts try for try and came within a single score of victory.

Sadly, Townsend is the only member of that quality trio still doing his thing at this level. The Scots are rebuilding, and south-west London is no place for rugby reconstruction work these days.

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