Licence to thrill

As sporting insults go it was up there with the best.

As sporting insults go it was up there with the best.

“If Iain Balshaw is an international full back,” maintained former Scottish rugby coach Finlay Calder, “then I’m Mel Gibson”.

Well, Calder had better get used to receiving a mailbag packed with letters addressed to Mr Gibson from English fans these next few months after Balshaw epitomised the adventure at the core of Clive Woodward’s rugby revolution on Saturday.

It almost seems churlish to single out one player following England’s 43 3 record triumph over Scotland — a Calcutta showdown which was as one sided as any in the history of this oldest of international rugby fixtures.

After all, the likes of prop Phil Vickery, second row Danny Grewcock and the evergreen Jason Leonard turned up in places Twickenham didn’t even know it had places during an exhibition of slick handling forward play which evoked comparison with Holland’s 1974 phenomenon of Total Football.

Wherever you looked there was a man in white looking to thrill and entertain, another looking to surge at the heart of the Scottish defence in order to set up his colleagues and even more to share the workload required to stay in this ever improving side.

But none shone quite as luminously as Balshaw — England’s youngest player at 21 and for whom the future is truly paved with gold.

In a way it is easy to see what Calder was getting at when he tossed his inappropriate slight in Balshaw’s direction. The Blackburn lad who could have played cricket for Lancashire or perhaps even tennis for Britain is at times positionally naive.

In England’s previous two games against Wales and Italy he had not looked overly confident in defence. But who cares about the odd nut and bolt missing when the engine roars like a Ferrari.

There are few commodities more exciting on a sports field. It brought Balshaw two blistering tries, half a dozen other searing breaks and the man of the match award for his contribution to a game which avenged England’s Grand Slam disappointment at Murrayfield last year.

But if Balshaw’s lightning pace was uplifting how refreshing also to find a sportsman so slow to take the credit for his daring deeds and so willing to brush aside Calder’s insult.

‘‘Everybody keeps mentioning Mel Gibson and to be honest I don’t really know what it means,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m pleased with the way things went but I don’t see myself as the main strike runner. We’ve got a lot of people in the backs and forwards who can take on the strike role.’’

He admitted it was strange at first coming in at full back when he plays on the wing for Bath but insisted: ‘‘I’d play at 15, 14, 13 or anywhere in the backs, even scrum half. I just try to put pressure on the opponents by attacking whenever I can. If selected again I want to build on this.’’

There is little doubt he will be the first man on Woodward’s teamsheet if the match in three weeks in Ireland, already billed as the Grand Slam decider, goes ahead after another performance which is swiftly turning his big pal, Bath team mate and international rival Matt Perry into England’s forgotten man.

It is such depth of talent, however, which is turning England rapidly into the world’s most feared side, though scrum half Matt Dawson, for one, spared a thought for Perry on Saturday.

‘‘Matt Perry has not done an awful lot wrong for England,’’ said Dawson.

‘‘All the banter in the autumn was that he was going to be around for years. I know it’s a cliché but there really is no substitute for pace and Balshaw has got genuine gas.

‘‘At the moment he is on a high and focusing very well. When we played Wales some doubted if he had the mental capacity but he has proved he has.

‘We’ve always been traditionally strong in the forwards but the back three has always been a sticking point in the past.

“Now we have got the power with the likes of Balshaw and Ben Cohen and Austin Healey, and also Dan Luger and Jason Robinson.’’ No one, as it happens, epitomises England’s strength in depth more than Robinson, the rugby league convert who came on for 20 minutes or so to win his second cap and was greeted with a tumultuous roar.

This time, unlike his debut against Italy, he even received a pass or two and immediately proved, as league fans have known for a decade, that there is no trickier runner in world rugby — the break in which he left two defenders grasping thin air before sending Will Greenwood home for his touchdown worth the admission money alone.

It all presents Woodward with the most delightful of problems — whether to keep faith with his sublime starting line or utilise the genius on the bench.

The portents increasingly suggest this England side, which inevitably will provide the bulk of the British Lions tour to Australia in the summer, is on the cusp of greatness — if only the World Cup could come two years sooner.

As it was, Twickenham’s record triumph was ample revenge for the Grand Slam disappointment at Murrayfield last year and, in the broader spectrum, a crucial part of the feelgood factor, at least south of the border, at a time when sport is secondary to the crisis sweeping the nation’s countryside.

As Woodward observed: ‘‘It’s not often England’s soccer and rugby teams win in the same week.’’ If Sven Goran Eriksson’s revolution ever reaches the heights Woodward’s squad is approaching you can bet they will give serious consideration to making the story into a film. Enter Mel Gibson.

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