England may cotton on to fearless Fran

Jeff Powell

Last updated at 00:00 04 March 1997

NO SOONER do they dare pick up the ball and run with it like Webb Ellis reincarnate than the future - just like the Five Nations Championship and mastery over the Northern Hemisphere - is no longer in their own hands.

Jack Rowell, the coach who wears more hats than Mrs Shilling at Ascot, and Phil de Glanville, a captain without honour in this land of the Lions, are at the mercy not only of the Welsh next week but the British this summer.

Rowell or Fran Cotton? De Glanville or Jeremy Guscott?

Their fates are entwined but the debate formed a sharp divide in the deepening gloom of a Twickenham night needlessly lost to France.

Who leads England to the 1999 Rugby World Cup?

Not necessarily the head that wears the Triple Crown.

While consecutive defeat in Cardiff might hasten Rowell's exit and usher in the new age of total professionalism, victory over Wales would carry no guarantees for him or his protege without portfolio.

The Lions - who book no place for de Glanville but cherish Guscott, who owe allegiance not to Rowell but to Cotton - will hold sway over England when they embark for South Africa in June.

English rugby knows that it is the Southern Hemisphere against which it must measure its might. If the Lions get it Cotton-pickin' right down there, fearless Fran will thunder into the reckoning.

The time line is on his side. Derek Morgan, chairman of the RFU's king-making National Playing Committee, makes that clear: `We are about three months ahead of ourselves over the issue of Jack and his new contract.'

Jack's old contract does not expire until August. That is beyond England's no-win tour of Argentina and after the Lions come (roaring?) home.

Jack Rowell knows there are those at Twickenham who want him out. Jack Rowell, as he hangs one of those items of headgear on yet another boardroom hat-peg this week, is among those who want Jack Rowell out if the only alternative is a full-time England coach.

They and he may get their wish. Which would be a shame. Because this man who is about to become chairman of a pharmaceutical company actually looks like getting the prescription for contemporary rugby dead right.

There were several misconceptions about Saturday's casting of a Grand Slam to the four winds of France.

Was this really a renaissance triumph for the romantic spirit of Tricolor rugby?

Not watching from the stand as England took that 20-6 lead and the French looked ready to capitulate if England contrived one more score of any kind.

Not listening to assistant French coach Pierre Villepreux in that immediate post-match moment before the celebrations swept them all away: `Maybe it was our destiny to win this match but we still have so much work to do before we can compete with the Southern Hemisphere.'

Was this truly a great rugby match?

Well, No. It was as exciting as any comeback can be but we are all guilty of mis-using the adjective great. What we had here was an average French team barely able to believe that England, an England deluded by a couple of easy wins, had let them off the hook.

The exaggerated enthusiasm for the occasion, it needs to be said, has been generated by that sizeable proportion of the attendant correspondents who take ill-concealed delight at seeing England embarrassed. Not only do envious Celts make up a goodly number of the critics but the smirking is infectious among many Anglo Saxon inhabitants of what is overtly described as the media lounge.

This is an unpleasant contagion and one which denies reality. England were the better XV and are a good deal closer than France to emulating the 15-man rugby with which New Zealand, Australia and South Africa regularly give us hell.

As England soccer coach Glenn Hoddle says and Rowell has discovered for himself: `The newspapers are very results-orientated.'

The English were even less deserving of defeat by France on Saturday than they were of losing to Italy at Wembley the other Wednesday. Even so, the smug air of superiority which pervades each of these managers and his team has contributed to their temporary downfall . . . and to the antagonism of the media.

Olivier Merle rightly identified the arrogance of English rugby. A little more modesty and they would have pressed on to victory instead of preening themselves in premature anticipation of an acceptable win over modest oppostion.

Instead, defeat has opened to the door to Rowell's enemies. And Cotton's election would satisfy we who believe that the major ball-playing nations - like Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany at soccer - should be managed by one of their own sporting culture and strident nationality.

Not that the succession is a foregone conclusion. No more so, given sober analysis of Saturday's surprising turn of events, than England should assume that Wales are simply there to be beaten on Saturday week.

Or, more intriguingly, that France should take Scotland for granted.

Stranger things have happened. Like at Twickenham.