Allan Massie: North lags behind south’s speed of thought

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I CAME upon a quote from Fred Allen the other day. Younger readers may not have heard of him, but he captained the All Blacks and then coached them between 1966 and 1968, in which time they were unbeaten in 14 Tests.

Allen’s 1967 All Blacks touring team to Britain, captained by Wilson Whineray, was regarded then as the finest New Zealand side since the 1905-06 “Invincibles”, and bears comparison with any since. This is the quote I happened on: “Back play is speed and speed play comes in three sizes – foot, hand and head – and head is the most important.”

Every coach at any level should preach this message to his players. If you look for the difference between southern and northern hemisphere back play today, you might conclude that the former are Allen’s disciples and the latter aren’t. Wales are currently the best side in the Six Nations, but, playing the Wallabies last week, their backs were slow in foot, hand and head, while their opponents were fast. The Australian backs moved the ball quicker because they were thinking quicker.

With the Heineken Cup resuming this weekend, it is somewhat surprising that Glasgow released young Mark Bennett to the Scotland Sevens squad, all the more surprising in view of the injury suffered by Sean Lamont. Even though Alex Dunbar is, happily, fit again, this would seem to leave them a bit short of cover in the centre. Many Scottish supporters would have liked to see Bennett given a first full cap last month, if only as a substitute. No doubt it probably won’t be long before he does play for the national XV, but at the moment he remains, as they say, a work in progress, with the need especially to improve his defence. He tackles well when in the right position, but his timing and angles are often wrong, a mistake of this sort leading to the first 
Ospreys try last week.

Speaking of centres, I watched the first half of the Amlin Challenge Cup match between Worcester and Biarritz on Thursday, and was impressed by the speed of foot, hand and head displayed by Alex Grove. He looked very promising when first capped by Andy Robinson three autumns ago, but now seems to have vanished from the Scotland coaches’ radar. Since I’ve argued that it’s time Scott Johnson fixed on a XV and stuck with it, it is a bit illogical to find myself urging that he should take another and closer look at Grove. Nevertheless, he looks good in a struggling Worcester team, and this is difficult for a centre to do.

Both Glasgow and Edinburgh at the moment of writing – that is, before Glasgow’s 8pm Friday match in Cardiff – still have a chance of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Cup. Arguably, this is more important for Edinburgh, because Glasgow are in much better position in the Rabo league. With their Scottish internationalists back, one assumes that Edinburgh can’t be as bad as they were a couple of weeks ago in Belfast, a match which made one wonder again about the quality of some of their southern hemisphere recruits. Their home-and-away matches in these middle rounds of the Heineken are against a Gloucester team that has been struggling almost as badly as they have themselves, having won only twice in the Aviva Premiership. Nevertheless, they won their home Heineken tie against Perpignan before losing to Munster in Limerick. Edinburgh need to win both these matches, collecting a bonus point in at least one, to have any reasonable chance of reaching the quarter-final. Even then they would have to win their return match against Perpignan at Murrayfield before going to Limerick on 18 January. Winning this group would be a great achievement – even finishing second would be impressive. Unfortunately, there is no chance that the club finishing second in this pool will advance into the knockout stage.

Meanwhile, it looks as if the English Premiership clubs have now definitely ruled out participation in next season’s Heineken – or as definitely as anything has been definite in this long-running argument; also that they are still wooing the four Welsh regional clubs whose relationship with the WRU seems to get worse and worse. So Lord knows what happens next. The tournament can survive without the English clubs, for a year or two anyway, despite the English assertion that everybody wants to play them.

But the absence of the Welsh would be a different matter with also, one assumes, unhappy consequences for the Rabo league (or whatever it is called next season). Common sense is in short supply. And the average exasperated fan just wishes someone would bang all their heads together until all agree that a compromise is necessary. Here in Scotland we may agree that the English clubs are at fault, but, since they don’t see it that way, it looks as if the best club tournament in the world is going to be, at the very least, severely damaged, if not actually destroyed.