England braced for the onslaught

World Cup semi-final: The born-again All Blacks lie in wait as Carling and company prepare to conjure up a repeat performance
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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

reports from Johannesburg

If tomorrow's World Cup semi-final in Cape Town is anything like last Sunday's quarter-final there, stout hearts will be as important as cool heads for England to beat New Zealand as they did Australia.

It is a huge demand on players whose season has now dragged on for 10 months to endure the torment again, since there is no way Will Carling's team can hope to be in the equivalent physical condition to Sean Fitzpatrick's when the New Zealand season has been going three months.

This is more or less the perfect time-span and, as the All Blacks' bravura rugby has handsomely reflected, it has given them a substantial advantage over teams coming careworn out of the north. All you can say is, however tired England may feel, they have never been better prepared.

Which is how it should be, this being as vertiginous an occasion as there could conceivably be short of the final itself, and therefore the most consequential game in the lives of the nine who did not face the Wallabies in the 1991 final at Twickenham.

It is precisely the same as last Sunday really, impossible for mere onlookers to imagine the flux of emotions that swirl around the psyche as they prepare for either doom or delight. It was bad enough until Rob Andrew dropped his goal against Australia a week ago; to be asked to go so soon through much the same - was it ecstatic agony or agonised ecstasy? - is the sheerest cruelty.

At least New Zealand no longer look quite so invincible; the Scots saw to that with their revival when it no longer mattered at the end of the Pretoria quarter-final last Sunday. Besides, the English are perfectly certain there are areas of All Black imperfection - weakness would probably be too strong a word.

In this quest nothing has been left undone. On Thursday the management received nine videos, prepared in London and delivered to Johannesburg within 48 hours of being requested, each focusing on a different aspect or individual: Lomu, Mehrtens, Kronfeld, Osborne and Bachop among others.

It is an example of the positive thinking England will require on the field. Take Jonah Lomu: far from being intimidated by the gargantuan wing's reputation, they believe they can turn the ponderousness that inevitably comes with size to their advantage and that Tony Underwood is the man to do it.

"Tony will enjoy it when he has the ball in hand against him," Carling said yesterday as the players were about to set off for Cape Town. "He has proved he is one of the most electric runners in the game and I think Mr Lomu will be fairly worried about him." Unlike some of the hostage- to-fortune Welsh comments before they met New Zealand, this is no idle bravado.

Underwood himself was crash-tackled by a scrum of interlocutors at the team hotel, all anxious to test his mettle on the subject of Lomu, and he sidestepped the issue as neatly as he hopes to do to Lomu tomorrow.

"I know as much about him as I know about every opposition player I face," he said. "I study the videos of their play and react accordingly. This is a slightly different challenge from the ones I'm used to, but other wings offer as many difficult qualities as Jonah does."

In any case England's game-plan will have to range far wider than the containment of the whale-like wing. In many respects this is a new New Zealand team - leading Carling to indicate that a new English approach would be necessary - but the fact of the matter is that this semi-final poses an eerily similar set of problems to those England solved against the All Blacks 19 months ago.

No doubt this is a better-endowed side than the one Fitzpatrick led to defeat then, but those predecessors, containing eight of tomorrow's quarter-finalists, went to Twickenham with a reputation which may have been besmirched by certain incidents of foul play but which was also for ambitious, fast-moving rugby rather like the game they have played so well in South Africa.

England proceeded to win enough of the ball to squeeze the life out of their opponents and the match and, though New Zealanders carped at the way England played, they should have taken it as a compliment that any victory over the All Blacks is its own vindication, no matter how it is achieved.

This will be no less true at Newlands - which is what worries the All Blacks, who complain, with some justification, that if they were to play a game of forward orientation and incessant kicking back home the whole country would desert to rugby league. To which one has to say life is unfair and, anyway, obvious as it may seem, there is only one object of tomorrow's exercise.

Thus, in a sense, the attempts England have been making to play flat- passing, mobile rugby are almost irrelevant, and even Les Cusworth, assistant coach and disciple of the audacious approach, admits it. "At the highest level we haven't achieved what we're aiming at, but at this juncture the whole way of the game is to make sure you get into the next round."

If this irks New Zealanders, we can be certain that they would have to subscribe to the same philosophy, albeit that they will find getting to the next, final round more likely by carrying on as before. But they are growing twitchy, and the PR front they have been putting up here with reasonable success has been tending to slip.

For instance, when Laurie Mains, the coach, was asked how well he thought his new generation would cope with the pressure he turned the question back on the questioner by suggesting that the worst pressure was coming from people like the questioner.

This surely cannot be so, not when the game to come is of such overpowering significance. If last week was bad this week will be even worse.

"When you get into a game like that, tumultuous and momentous, those are the games that tend to lose their structure," Jack Rowell, the England manager, said yesterday. "When you get into that situation it's life or death, and we prefer living as opposed to dying in style." Amen to that.

WORLD

CUP

UPDATE

Semi-finals

TODAY

South Africa v France 2pm BST

(at King's Park, Durban)

TOMORROW England v New Zealand 2pm BST

(at Newlands, Cape Town)

THIRD-PLACE PLAY-OFF: Thursday 22 June (at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)

FINAL: Saturday 24 June (at Ellis Park, Johannesburg)

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