Sunshine boys face hot contests

Dave Hadfield assesses the home nations' World Cup warm-up plans
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The Independent Online

The divots will hardly have been replaced at Old Trafford after the last domestic rugby league match of the season before some of those who played in it and those who would have liked to will be in the throes of preparation for the Lincoln World Cup.

The divots will hardly have been replaced at Old Trafford after the last domestic rugby league match of the season before some of those who played in it and those who would have liked to will be in the throes of preparation for the Lincoln World Cup.

England and Wales fly out today to Florida and South Africa respectively. Fly out, that is, apart from the Wigan and St Helens players involved in last night's Grand Final, who, after an unseemly wrangle over Saints' insistence that they needed their players at their end-of-season party today, will now follow tomorrow.

Both countries, when they finally assemble, will be experiencing the sort of build-up their predecessors never enjoyed. Some have questioned whether the sun of Orlando or Pretoria is the ideal preparation for a tournament to be played in the gathering chill of a northern autumn, but the England coach, John Kear, is convinced. "All the evidence from the British Olympic Association is that this is the best way to use the time that we have available," he says. "This will be the best-prepared team we have ever put on the field."

An England team not appreciably weakened by the replacement of Francis Cummins with Saints' Grand Final full-back, Paul Wellens, this week, will play the United States in what has been designated a full Test match. Apart from being important encouragement for the USA, who will be competing in the Emerging Nations' World Cup at the same time as the main tournament, and who show signs of developing a genuine presence in their own country, the match will give Kear a chance to try out most potential combinations.

In fact, he already knows his team for the tournament's opening game, against Australia at Twickenham on 28 October - subject, of course, to players coming through safely from Old Trafford and Orlando.

England will be flying out in rather better heart than Wales, who suffered a hammer blow this week with the withdrawal of Wigan's Neil Cowie, their vice-captain and the corner-stone of their pack. It says much about how thinly stretched their resources have become that the Welsh team management tried to tempt Paul Moriarty back to a game he last played four years ago. Moriarty was keen enough, but Swansea - like the Wales rugby league team, coached by Clive Griffiths - would have wanted the RFL to pay his wages for the duration of the tournament. That was a precedent that the RFL were unlikely to broach.

Wales, who, more than ever, look worryingly dependent on two truly outstanding players - Keiron Cunningham and Iestyn Harris - meet South Africa in a warm-up international on Thursday. The Rhinos merely made up the numbers in the last World Cup, in 1995, but indications are that they have some higher-calibre players available this time.

It is not inconceivable that they could ambush the Welsh in Pretoria, something that would severely dent Wales' World Cup credibility long before they face the assorted challenges of New Zealand, Lebanon and the Cook Islands.

Many pessimists expect England's credentials to last only as long as that daunting first game against Australia. If they are to avoid defeat on a morale-draining scale, the success of this week in Florida is essential.

Ireland, meanwhile, will be flying out to Spain in midweek, although their only playing commitment is a full-scale practice match against each other. "We'll be playing a lot of golf, though," said one of their leading lights this week, effortlessly adopting that easy-come-easy-go approach that we expect even of Irishmen born in the North of England.

For the real short straw, however, look no further than Scotland. Their warm-weather preparation hinges on a sudden improvement in meteorological conditions... in Leeds.

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