Eyes closed and thinking of England

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
The jet-lag kicked in with a vengeance yesterday as England sleep-walked their way through their penultimate training session before tomorrow's one-off Test - some would call it an ambush - in Sydney. "I managed nine hours sleep on Wednesday night so I've cracked it," said Phil de Glanville, the captain. "But it's different for the Lions who flew in from South Africa. They really are suffering."

Heigh-ho, there you go. Just as the Lions re-establish some sort of credibility for northern hemisphere rugby by beating the world champions on their own grasslands, England arrive underbaked and under-prepared for an oddball match with the Wallabies that looks as ill-fated as it is ill-conceived. Never less than honest, De Glanville made a sharp point or three as he weighed up his chances of becoming the first red rose skipper to venture Down Under and win.

"It's not an unfair match, exactly; international rugby is where the money stands to be made and we all appreciate that fact," he said. "But I've said to the Rugby Football Union that we'd like to be given at least a reasonable chance to be at our best in big matches like this, to have the odds stacked in our favour as far as is possible. Quite obviously, that is not the case on this occasion."

He could have said that over and over again. Not only were the vast majority of the side visibly suffering from the effects of long-haul travel yesterday, they were also required to drive for the best part of an hour in search of a training pitch that did not resemble a community refuse facility. And to add insult to injury, they were once again forced to prepare in the absence of Dave Alred, the most successful kicking coach in world rugby.

England's reluctance to draw Alred into the fold now borders on the embarrassing, especially in the light of his achievements with the Lions. The series against the Springboks was won primarily through the right boot of Neil Jenkins, who accounted for 41 of the 59 points scored by the tourists over the three Tests; indeed, the Welshman finished the 13-match tour with a strike rate of 76 per cent and did not miss a single intended kick to touch.

More to the point at issue, Tim Stimpson, the England full-back, matched Jenkins virtually kick for kick, emerging with a success ratio of 73 per cent. This from a player who had not taken aim at the posts in anger since leaving West Hartlepool for Newcastle in the summer of last year. No wonder the South Africans, who fluffed every last kick at goal in the decisive Durban Test, are offering Alred a Springbok contract.

"He should be involved with us," admitted Jack Rowell, the England coach, who is now finding it increasingly difficult to disguise his exasperation at the RFU's apparent suspicion of Alred's methods. "I think we've now reached the stage where the situation needs to be sorted. I've put a high value on Dave's services since we worked together at Bath some years ago and I haven't changed my view on the subject. We talk about this pretty regularly and I'm expectant that the reluctance is about to disappear for the good of English rugby. He's a must, as far as I'm concerned."

In which case, the RFU should get a move on. Their counterparts in South Africa are deadly serious about buying Alred in and now that he has completed a one-year contract with Newcastle, the world is his oyster. Ironically enough, the Australians have made more use of his expertise than any other international set-up and if Matt Burke outkicks Stimpson tomorrow, certain members of the England hierarchy will spend most of the evening scrubbing egg yolks from their faces.

Tony Underwood, the Newcastle wing carried off during the first half of last weekend's Lions' Test in Johannesburg, was still feeling the effects of his hip injury yesterday and did not train. "He's more than a slight doubt, but we'll see how he improves over the next few hours," said De Glanville. Nick Beal, the versatile Northampton back, would be the most likely replacement.

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