Anxious Waite in need of the remarkable

The Ashes: Now the Australians are actually here they look every bit as formidable as their illustrious predecessors
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anyone who hoped that Australia would arrive on these shores somewhat frazzled, even tense and defensive, has been bitterly disappointed this past week.

Anyone who hoped that Australia would arrive on these shores somewhat frazzled, even tense and defensive, has been bitterly disappointed this past week.

When the belated decision to tour was made, there was half an expectation that the 2001 Kangaroos might be a little under-prepared; maybe, considering the arguments over whether to make the trip, a little disunited as well. But you would not have known last week that there had been any drama. They are here and it is business as usual.

Even the Australian captain, Brad Fittler, set up as the villain of the piece, has been all relaxed charm. He would like to have brought his girlfriend and stayed for longer, he says. And, as for the white feathers sent to him anonymously through the post, he doesn't know what they are supposed to signify.

What does that say about the likely strength of the Kangaroos when they get on to the pitch at Huddersfield this afternoon? Probably that the controversy over the tour will have done Great Britain few favours. It could even have sharpened the Aussies up.

Although there are some faces that will be familiar only to those who have been watching club games from the National Rugby League this year, this is a strong Australian side. Fittler, Darren Lockyer and Andrew Johns are right up there with the best the code has produced, while Trent Barrett has the ability to become one of their finest-ever stand-offs.

The loss of Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers to rugby union might look like a body blow, but the wingers who have replaced them, Lote Tuqiri and Adam "Mad Dog" MacDougall, were undoubtedly better players over the course of the season.

But the real strength of Australian rugby league will be apparent in the new breed. Two players from the Australian Schoolboys' tour of two years ago have graduated to today's squad – Jamie Lyon at centre and the freakishly talented Braith Anasta on the bench. A third, Mark Gasnier, is one of the four players in reserve.

Then there is Jason Ryles, a baby in front-row terms at 22, but a hero in his fervent desire to tour when others were falling by the wayside. He was the man who offered to play in Afghanistan if required, and there will be a special cheer for him when he comes off the substitutes' bench. Ryles is one of five props in the 17. "We could be a little under-done," says the Australian coach, Chris Anderson. "The front-rowers do most of the work, so they could get a bit short of puff."

Britain's coach, David Waite, does not buy into any theory of catching Australia cold, but front row is one area in which his side should not be overwhelmed. "The physical part is important," says Barrie McDermott, who faced the Australians on their last full Ashes tour seven years ago. "But the aggression has to have a purpose. Taking heads off doesn't do us any favours."

With Jamie Peacock and a revitalised Chris Joynt in the second row, the British pack will not be short of running or work-rate. Assuming they can struggle through at dummy-half with a couple of hurriedly converted back-rowers, where the home side could struggle is in the match-ups further out.

Selecting Richard Horne for his first Test at the age of 19 is a bold move that should be applauded – especially in the absence of a really convincing alternative – but he will have his hands full with Johns, who is so delighted to be playing in his natural scrum-half role.

Paul Sculthorpe has demonstrated his ability all season to play as a genuine stand-off, but it is hard to be as confident about the back-line outside him. When Great Britain have caught the Kangaroos on the hop in the past, there has usually been a Martin Offiah, a Garry Schofield or a Jason Robinson involved. There is no strike player remotely comparable in the current threequarter line, which leaves Britain under-powered in attack. The most that can be hoped is that they are solid in defence, but even that is far from guaranteed.

That makes it all the more mystifying that Michael Withers should have been left out. The Australian-born Waite courted further xenophobic controversy by selecting an Australian-born player in the first place. To have done so and then not to use him looks like getting the pain without the gain. Withers' club form for Bradford last season – admittedly at full-back in the main – was several notches above a couple of players named in the back-line and there remains a suspicion that Waite might be keeping him up his sleeve, avoiding the inevitable furore over the Aussie playing for the Poms.

That would make more sense than leaving him out, but nobody in this country can yet read Waite's intentions. Not everyone in Australia can either. "He's a little bit complicated for me," laughed Anderson last week. Anderson's approach, by comparison, is simplicity itself; quick play-the-balls, cumulative pressure and surgical incisions from Fittler, Johns and Barrett.

Their team were named almost a fortnight ago and there will be no last-minute re-jigs. That's confidence – or arrogance – but, unless something very remarkable happens at the McAlpine Stadium, it is liable to be justified.