Rugby Union: Woodward faces watershed

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The Independent Online
THIS is it, then: sink or swim, do or die, put up or shut up. Clive Woodward could not have imagined things would reach such a pretty pass so soon in his tenure as England coach; indeed, it is perfectly possible that he does not consider today's Five Nations dust-up with Wales to be a watershed occasion at all. In which case, he sees things rather differently to the 78,000 who will sit in judgement on him at Twickenham this afternoon.

Woodward is not on trial to the degree that Jack Rowell found himself on that win-or-bust Calcutta Cup day in Edinburgh two years ago. But defeat at the hands of the Welsh would not only signal the end of a long honeymoon with an English sporting public swept off its feet by seductive words, it would also set the tone for an old-fashioned door-slamming, furniture-throwing domestic with the coach's grey-suited in-laws at the Rugby Football Union.

It is now seven Tests since England's sweet chariot made it all the way to the chequered flag and the record of the Woodward regime is two draws and three defeats from five outings. No one is on the phone to Dial-a- Tumbril just at the moment - New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and France are the Real McCoys of world rugby, after all - but today, the coach takes on a second-class power for the first time. As Roger Uttley, the England manager, admitted this week, a bad one against Wales will inevitably lead to "questions being asked in high places".

Worryingly for Woodward, it is not merely a question of England avoiding a second successive "bad one". What Lawrence Dallaglio and company need is an extremely "good one", just to see off a Welsh side unusually confident of translating their paper potential to the green grass of the playing field.

It is 20 years since the the seven wonders of the valleys - Gareth, Gerald, Phil, JPR and the Pontypool front row - bestrode the rugby landscape and seldom since have the red shirts poured across the Severn in such high spirits.

Arwel Thomas, the magically gifted outside-half from Swansea, articulated the feel-good factor this week by saying: "If the pack gives us some runnable ball, we'll win. We have more idea behind the scrum because we've got better players, man for man, from nine to 15.

"England have played all the top-quality sides under Woodward and shown signs of moving away from the kicking game but if winning is a habit, it's a habit they don't have at the moment. We definitely fancy this one."

Thomas will fancy it a whole lot more if England's reshaped front-row trio spend the afternoon peering into their own darkened recesses, as the previous incarnation did in Paris a fortnight ago. Phil Vickery, the all-important new cap on the tight head, has been exposed early to the rigours of international duty, presumably because Woodward does not believe the Welsh scrummagers will prove nearly as troublesome as Christian Califano and Franck Tournaire. He may be right on that score, but Andrew Lewis is playing the best rugby of his career and the outcome of his tete--tete with Vickery will be fundamental to the outcome.

As, indeed, will the performance of England's back five. Martin Johnson is on a busman's holiday at the moment and for all Uttley's pseudo-babble about staleness and burn-out, it is high time the Lions captain raised a gallop and concentrated on punching his weight in the rucks and mauls rather than than punching opposition backs. The Welsh have no second row in the same universe - indeed, they have no one as good as Garath Archer, either - and knife-edge Tests are usually won by the side capitalising on the odd area of clear superiority.

Unless Johnson and Archer help secure the English scrummage, Dallaglio and his extravagantly equipped back-row confreres will be sitting ducks for the second time in as many matches. As Olivier Magne, the outstanding French flanker, pointed out in Paris, the scrum is once again the most influential physical and psychological theatre of rugby action. "No one plays this game going backwards," he said. "At least, they don't if they're serious about winning."

An even contest at the sharp end should ensure a compelling battle of wits in midfield, where the quartet of centres from last summer's Lions tour of South Africa are preparing to lock horns in a four-cornered game of full-contact chess. One of them, Jeremy Guscott, wins his 50th cap this afternoon and with characteristic swagger, he says he relishes the fact that he will be opposed by Allan Bateman, whom he describes as "the best centre in the world".

But Guscott's animal instinct ensures he will keep one eye fixed on Bateman's partner, Scott Gibbs. "I don't know how he does it, but Jerry has survived the best part of a decade at the top level without getting a slamming," said the Swansea hit-man yesterday, a disconcerting smile faintly visible on his deceptively studious features. The message was clear: Gibbs owes Guscott, but Wales owe England even more.


at Twickenham

M Perry Bath 15 N Jenkins Pontypridd

D Rees Sale 14 G Thomas Cardiff

W Greenwood Leicester 13 A Bateman Richmond

J Guscott Bath 12 S Gibbs Swansea

A Healey Leicester 11 N Walker Cardiff

P Grayson Northampton 10 A Thomas Swansea

K Bracken Saracens 9 R Howley Cardiff, capt

J Leonard Harlequins 1 A Lewis Cardiff

R Cockerill Leicester 2 B Williams Richmond

P Vickery Gloucester 3 D Young Cardiff

M Johnson Leicester 4 G Llewellyn Harlequins

G Archer Newcastle 5 M Voyle Llanelli

L Dallaglio Wasps, capt 6 C Charvis Swansea

N Back Leicester 7 M Williams Pontypridd

R Hill Saracens 8 S Quinnell Richmond

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand) Kick-off: 2.0 (Sky Sports 2)