A slur to stir the English

Rugby Union: World Cup; High noon in Cape Town as Campese's low blows fire the determination of Carling and company
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The Independent Online
IF TIMING is everything in sport, then David Campese has blown it. Not only has the Australian wing seemingly lost, perhaps temporarily, the art of how to play rugby, but he is apparently losing his senses. His reference early in the tournament to Will Carling as a neutered bull and his outburst last Thursday in criticism of England's style is as ludicrous as it is tedious. And, coming so close to this afternoon's meeting of the two teams in Cape Town, it places far greater strain on his own players than it does on the opposition.

He has refused to speak to the world's media, but there can be only one explanation for his ranting return from self-imposed exile. He must still believe that people take him seriously and that his remarks will goad England into tactical imprudence. This may be because Campese fondly imagines that it was he who influenced England into changing their tactics before the World Cup final at Twickenham four years ago by making similar remarks about their unenterprising attitude. For whatever reason, England switched from the forward- dominated game which had swept them into the final to a more open style which, Campese maintained, they were ill-equipped to play.

This flamboyant free spirit has continued to take much of the credit for this. Campese is a maverick, unique in style and outlook and therefore worthy of preservation in an age of mediocrity and conformity. He often speaks before he thinks and much of it is tongue-in-cheek. But this time he has gone too far and Australia could pay a heavy price for his folly.

This England side may not be the most individually skilled in the tournament but collectively they have been through almost as much fire as the Australians. They possess spirit and steel in equal measure. Dewi Morris, the one change from the side which won the Grand Slam, typifies the English attitude. So does Rob Andrew, whom the Australians fear above all others as the match-winner. The pack has at one time or another confronted and beaten forwards who are every bit as good as the present Australian eight and the three-quarters, if only Jeremy Guscott can be tempted out of his shell, can be as sharply effective as their opponents this afternoon.

There have been times during this World Cup, however, when it has seemed as if Guscott's nerve has gone, not uncommon after an injury such as the one which kept him out of the game for more than a year. But this may be his last chance to prove that he remains one of the most opulently gifted midfield creators in world rugby. The importance of the occasion and the grandeur of the surroundings will perhaps be the trigger he needs to release his inhibitions and reveal his true quality. Preferably a matchwinning thrust past Campese's groping fingers and gaping mouth.

Indeed, the mystifying element in England's team today is the indifferent form of so many players of proven experience and ability. The conditions, the obduracy of the opposition so far, and the reluctance to unveil their best-laid plans too early are the reasons given for the lethargy of their performance, particularly against Argentina and Italy when, on both occasions, the nuts came perilously close to cracking the sledgehammer.

With a less obviously intimidating team against Western Samoa, England gave a much better account of themselves and by doing so may have steadied the ship. Nevertheless, the team Jack Rowell had envisaged would take England to the ultimate goal has so far failed to deliver much beyond the odd fleeting passage of fluent movement.

Either by an unfortunate quirk in the fixture scheduling or by extraordinary mismanagement, the 1991 World Cup finalists have not met since that day. Before that, they last played each other in Sydney when Australia produced what Bob Dwyer, their coach, still considers to be the definitive rugby display. So good was it, in fact, that England left the field humbled to the tune of 40-15 and Rob Andrew was asked by an Australian interviewer how on earth the players could possibly come to terms psychologically with such a hiding. Andrew was taken aback. It was his impression that England had played rather well, and so they had for most of the game. They were badly beaten, however, in the back row where Simon Poidevin, Tim Gavin and Willie Ofahengaue had played fast and loose with the ponderously inflexible English loose forwards and had effectively sealed Dean Richards's fate in the latter stages of the World Cup when he was dropped from the side.

Gavin and Ofahengaue are playing again today, and so is Richards, and such is the esteem in which the Leicester man is held that there isn't a respected observer - and that includes the Australians - who believes that he won't have a big influence on today's proceedings.

Nick Farr-Jones, whom the Australians have found irreplaceable since his retirement and who has been following every move made by the team since their arrival in South Africa, fears that a number of players may now be too far past their peak to reproduce their best form on the big occasion. If that is true, then England's chances of making the last four are much brighter than seemed likely at the start of the tournament. Man for man, the Australians no longer look as powerful as they were. On top of that, David Campese may have put his foot where his mouth is once too often and if that is the case, England's revenge will be sweet indeed.

England have sniffed the scent of vulnerability and uncertainty in the Australian camp. There is the recognition of genuine bewilderment and concern at performances which have deflated the swaggering confidence of the pre-tournament favourites, a status the Australians have now happily surrendered to Sean Fitzpatrick's New Zealanders, who this afternoon play Scotland. As in the inaugural tournament in 1987, no side so far has looked capable of staying close to the All Blacks, let alone beating them. Apart from the terrifying pace of Jonah Lomu on the wing, the All Blacks have been beautifully served by Graeme Bachop whose passing has been exquisite, and hugely grateful for the emergence of the black-hooded assassin Josh Kronfeld as the best loose forward since Michael Jones.

The Scots, on the other hand, have shown themselves to be competent and resilient, well-organised and admirably disciplined. It was they who eight years ago provided the All Blacks with their most demanding opposition. Then, as now, the Scots had a hardworking pack, a talented back row, shrewd half-backs and Gavin Hastings. So much has been asked of this magnificent player in the past that it seems unreasonable to demand even more of him now, but if Scotland are not to follow the Irish and the Welsh - heaven forfend that they go the way of the Japanese - Hastings and his charges will have to play the game of their lives. The Irish succeeded in doing it for half a match and conceded more than 40 points. That is the magnitude of the task facing Scotland.

Both Hastings and Will Carling have been stressing the importance of the occasion to their players and they are right to do so. But taken in the context of the news that Max Brito, the Ivory Coast wing, will spend the rest of his life paralysed in a wheelchair as a result of his injury against Tonga, it is of minor significance. Brito's broken neck was a freak accident for which no blame could be apportioned, yet it must surely stand as a grim warning to the tournament organisers whose decision to expand the next World Cup to 20 teams is of questionable value both to the event itself and to the additional countries chosen to participate in it.

Such has been the physical intensity of the contests here, most vividly exemplified by the relentlessly competitive Canadians in their brutal encounter against the Springboks, that only the most technically knowledgeable and competent sides can hope to survive. Anything less and the risk of danger to life and limb increases dramatically. It is a risk that is not worth taking.