Rugby Union: England happy to take Welsh lessons

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The Independent Online
IT IS not often that Welsh rugby folk do the English anything that might be construed as a favour, but much to the horror of everyone from Newport in the east to St David's in the west, the Red Dragons have been rather helpful to the Red Roses this week.

Martin Johnson and company spent yesterday morning viewing footage of last Saturday's Wales-Canada match and, as a result, they will go into their own international with the Canucks tomorrow evening well insured against any possible derailment of their impressive World Cup momentum.

"We knew next to nothing about the United States Eagles in advance of last weekend's game and although they ran out of steam towards the end and allowed us to run in tries from 80 metres, the fact that they were totally new to us made life awkward for the first 30 minutes," said the Leicester lock. "A far bigger proportion of the Canadian team are full- time players who earn their living here in Britain, so we're more aware of what to expect. But it was important to take a look at the way they approached the game in Wales, where they gave a pretty good account of themselves. This will be a physical night's work, no doubt about it."

While he did not make the point in so many words - dear old Johnno is becoming positively Blair-esque in his ability to take the heat out of a question - he was quite clearly hoping for a serious work- out rather than the cake- walk he experienced against the outclassed Americans six days ago.

"It's all about pressure, isn't it? About reacting to pressure and using it as a positive," he said. "When you're scoring tries from distance almost at will, as we were last week, you don't discover much about yourselves. I think Canada will be a very different proposition. They had good World Cups in '91 and '95 and they know what they're about."

Clive Woodward, the England coach, will hope to know what his new tight five is all about by the end of tomorrow's 80 minutes of thud and blunder. Forget the sparsely populated Twickenham stands (a second successive crowd of less than 15,000 is in prospect); this is as big a game as Graham Rowntree, Phil Greening, Phil Vickery and Danny Grewcock have ever played. A strong, secure, hard-scrummaging performance against Canadian roughnecks like Rod Snow and Mark Cardinal will make them racing certainties for the opening World Cup pool match against Italy on 2 October. And that, according to Rowntree, is a prize worth fighting for.

"I'm looking at a limited shop window here," said the popular Leicester loose-head. "It's not even an 80-minute opportunity because I'm pretty sure Jason Leonard and the rest of the front-row boys on the bench will get a run before the end. But the chance is there and I want to take it. When you endure a season like I did last time out, when injuries held me back and I feared for my World Cup chances every hour of every day, you realise how precious these opportunities are."

Rowntree goes up against the Canucks without his old muckers from the Leicester ABC club, the bench-bound Richard Cockerill and Darren Garforth, but it is not in his genial nature to forget them. "They're fully behind me; I have their total support, as they have always had mine," he said. And there was also an encouraging word for Lawrence Dallaglio as the former national captain set about regathering his faculties after the agonies of Wednesday's disciplinary tribunal. "He's been through a lot, but you'd never have guessed it from the way he's trained since returning to the squad. That's the mark of the man and all credit to him." Then a grin. "The bastard didn't train with us on Wednesday night, though, and it was a hard old session, too."

Things will be a lot less hard for the England squad if they go the whole way in this autumn's showpiece tournament. They are on pounds 100,000 a man to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy and by way of giving them extra self-belief, their employers at the Rugby Football Union have insured themselves against that eventuality to the tune of pounds 3m. Success is at a premium, obviously.

n Saracens have appointed Francois Pienaar as their captain for next season. The South African will lead the team out for the pre-season friendly against Pontypridd at Vicarage Road tomorrow. Pienaar will remain part of the coaching set-up.

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