Good Tries Tracing the History of Rugby Union; as England's So Far Triumphant Six Nations Campaign Reaches Its Climax at Murrayfield Today, Ross Reyburn Reviews Two Important Histories of the Rugby Union Game

The Birmingham Post (England), April 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Good Tries Tracing the History of Rugby Union; as England's So Far Triumphant Six Nations Campaign Reaches Its Climax at Murrayfield Today, Ross Reyburn Reviews Two Important Histories of the Rugby Union Game


Few English rugby followers will have heard of Cherry Pillman, WJA Davies or Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, all legendary figures in English rugby's Golden Age.

The general ignorance of the game's history is only matched by a woeful shortage of authoritative literature on the game's past.

Sports writer Jason Woolgar makes a welcome attempt to make a dent in the void with his history of English rugby, England - The Official RFU History (Virgin, pounds 25).

The author produces a commendably clear summary of the game's early development and the William Webb Ellis legend at Rugby School and a lucid account of the great era in English rugby when there were five Grand Slam triumphs in seven seasons from 1913-1924 either side of World War 1.

Due homage is paid to the hugely gifted fly-half WJA Davies, the dashing fighter pilot winger Cyril Lowe, and the man who was probably the greatest of all English backs, the legendary threequarter Ronnie Poulton-Palmer.

In 1913, England lost 9-3 to the formidable touring South Africans. But two 'twinkling, swerving runs' from Poulton-Palmer provided the match highlights for 'from the first he scored a magical try, and the second, reputedly of even greater daring, was stopped an agonising yard short of the line.'

The book has an invaluable statistical section but the Player Profiles section is riddled with players of recent vintage who hardly merit elevation among the game's greats. Incredibly the great Coventry and England winger Peter Jackson, a ghostlike runner with magical qualities of elusiveness that owed little to speed, is nowhere to be found.

Cherry Pillman, one of the greatest of all wing forwards, is absent too and connoisseurs of the forward game will be baffled to find the marvellous Midland flanker, PGD Robbins, doesn't merit a place either.

Woolgar's match reports have some interesting observations. In the account of debut captain Will Carling's memorable 28-19 triumph against Australia at Twickenham in 1988, he recalls how the graceful speedster Andrew Harriman, making his debut, knocked-on five yards from an undefended tryline and never played for England in a Test again. A galling fact when you consider how he blitzed world-class opponents guiding England to a World Sevens title.

He also highlights Lawrence Dallaglio's shortcomings as England captain when Wales triumphed memorably 32-31 at Wembley last year after Dallaglio's 'barely creditable and ultimately catastrophic decision' to turn down the opportunity for Wilkinson to kick a penalty.

But many of Woolgar's verdicts on English performances often lack perception. No mention is made of Moseley scrum-half Jan Webster's role in England's totally unexpected overseas wins against South Africa and New Zealand in 1972 and 1973 or Tim Rodber's titanic performance in England's 32-15 victory in 1994 Pretoria victory against South Africa.

Despite some wonderful victories, the ultimate prize - a World Cup triumph - has eluded the successful England sides of the 1990s.

The explanation lies in the inability of England to think on their feet when the game plan goes wrong, but Woolgar offers no hint of this. Would England have lost the 1991 World Cup final 12-6 against Australia at Twickenham if Carling at half-time had had the vision to tell his superior forwards to win the game and forget the fumbling backs?

Woolgar also avoids the minefield produced by professional rugby union that has seen the RFU and English clubs produce a sequence of numbingly incompetent decisions.

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Good Tries Tracing the History of Rugby Union; as England's So Far Triumphant Six Nations Campaign Reaches Its Climax at Murrayfield Today, Ross Reyburn Reviews Two Important Histories of the Rugby Union Game
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