Last hurrah for old order

Rugby Union World Cup: Chris Rea studies the merits of the serious contenders for the big prize; WORLD CUP: As a new age for the game dawns, established powers aim to re-assert their supremacy
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The Independent Online
AS USUAL in advance of momentous events, there is the phoney war of threats, promises, rebellion and, in this case, revolution. Friday's meeting between the southern hemisphere's big powers - South Africa, New Zealand and Australia - was aimed at reaching agreement over their stance on professionalism and the direction the international game must take after the World Cup. They hope to present a united front at the next meeting of the International Board in Paris in August and should they do so they will be a formidable adversary against the more conservative forces of the four home unions.

It has gone beyond mere words. These are the sticks and stones which will ultimately break the mould of the game as we know it. Yet, perversely, the group most affected by the changes, the players, seem totally oblivious to the greatest upheaval in rugby history. They are now so set in pursuit of rugby's greatest prize that not even the volcanic eruption of professionalism can break their concentration or divert their attention. The players are now caught up in the increasingly arcane world of plyometric drills, high- fibre diets and, the latest fad, orthopaedic balancing.

The almost obsessive concern over fitness surely reached new heights last week with the arrival from London of Ron Holder, an expert in kinesiology, which is concerned with balancing the muscular energy flow in the body. Whatever happened to the good old press-up? Holder is the man who resurrected Zola Budd's career and he has been called in by the Springboks who appear to be more troubled than most by niggling injury.

Having already lost Chester Williams, they are understandably jittery about any more late withdrawals, their chief concern at the moment being their captain Francois Pienaar, whose tweaked hamstring is the subject of hourly bulletins on the local news. But when it comes to painstaking preparation, the Australians are in a different class. Since their arrival last Tuesday they have been delighting observers with their uniquely innovative approach to training, incorporating drills and exercises from a wide range of sports, including cricket. A session of slip catching designed to sharpen the reflexes was one of the more unusual sights, as was the refusal to allow Michael Lynagh, their front-line goal-kicker, the opportunity to practise. Despite a swim and a 90-minute warm-up session, the medical team had decreed that, following a 20-hour flight, Lynagh's muscles would not be sufficiently relaxed to risk the strain of kicking.

Given all this new-found wisdom, the wonder is that teams of yesteryear could ever find 15 players fit enough to take the field. But even with all the modern techniques and technical jargon the Australians managed to fall prey to the unforeseen accident when their lock forward Rod McCall fell heavily and twisted his ankle. He is expected to be fit for selection in the side due to be announced later today for the opening game against South Africa in Cape Town on Thursday. No single match will have a more far-reaching impact on the tournament than this one, not least for England who, depending on its outcome, will meet either Australia or South Africa in the quarter-final. The view that the final at Ellis Park will be a repeat of the opening game at Newlands is hardening, although there is increasing support for the belief that those of us who have written off the All Blacks as potential finalists have got it very wrong. So far they have looked ominously sharp in training and when it comes to willpower and bloody-minded determination not even the host nation can match them.

The talk has been of the Springboks, the Wallabies, England and France but scarcely a mention of New Zealand. They are embattled on all sides, on the one hand by poor selection and tactical uncertainty and on the other by the encroachment on the hitherto unspoilt landscape of rugby league. If ever the All Blacks had to bring home the bacon and save the game, it is now.

Their build-up has been more impressive than most, their 73-7 hiding of the demoralised Canadians being a blend of flair and ruthless efficiency. In Andrew Mehrtens, whose 28 points in that match was a record for a player making his international debut, they do at last appear to have found a reliable successor to Grant Fox. If it is true that their forwards are neither the biggest nor the swiftest in the tournament and that there appear to be too many recycled flops in the backs, it is also the case that no country has more to gain from victory and if it comes down to the ferocious defence of past reputation and future survival, as well it might, there will be no harder team to beat than the All Blacks.

The South Africans on the other hand are likely to be driven on by the fear of defeat which, in the short term, can be the most powerful motivation. It is this fear of losing to the Australians on Thursday which could just carry the day against their brashly confident opponents. Under their coach, Kitch Christie, the Springboks are more settled than at any time since their return to the international stage, yet politics still play a part in selection and defeat against Australia could precipitate a spiralling decline in morale rather than increased resolve. The thought of playing England, to whom they have lost convincingly in two out of their past three meetings, is not one likely to fill them with confidence.

At this stage, too, their tactical plan is unclear and until the announcement of their half-back combination it will remain a matter for conjecture. Hennie Le Roux and Joel Stransky are the two players of contrasting style contesting the fly-half position and significantly, perhaps, it was Stransky whose reputation is more as a kicker, who was selected for the Springboks' last build-up match against the Western Samoans. He scored a try in their handsome 60-8 victory while Gavin Johnson, with 28 points in the match, created an individual scoring record for a South African in an international and may win a place on the wing. It may also be that the Springboks accommodate both Stransky and Le Roux in the same back division but Williams's loss remains a severe blow. His ability to score tries, particularly in tandem with the scrum-half Joost Van Der Westhuizen on the blind side, would have been a priceless advantage at this level, where the breaching of defences by orthodox means will be well-nigh impossible.

This remains England's biggest problem. Their outstanding score during the domestic season was unquestionably Tony Underwood's try against France created from the advancing platform of a set scrummage and delivered by Mike Catt's searing blind-side intervention. It had everything - split- second timing, pinpoint accuracy and breathtaking speed. Never again during the championship did England attain this level of perfection, a peak that they will have to reach if they are, in successive weeks, to beat off the Springboks, the All Blacks and the Wallabies and claim the prize.

It is the firm belief in the rival camps that England will not be able to decorate the work of their beefy forwards with the subtle garnish of their back play. Nevertheless, as many opponents have discovered, including the Springboks at Loftus Versfeld last year, it is one thing to talk about stopping England and another thing altogether to do it.

Of the home countries, the Scots appear to have the best chance of reaching the last four provided that they can beat France. Their hopes rose dramatically following their victory in Paris in the Five Nations, although the French, not for the first time, contributed hugely to their own downfall. That self- destructive tendency is part of their nature and without a settled combination at half-back and short of a consistently reliable goal- kicker, the present French side appear to be susceptible to bouts of foot-shooting. The pool match between the two will be of almost as much significance as the one between South Africa and Australia, in that the very unpredictability of the French makes them feared opponents whoever they play.

Lying in wait for both France and Scotland are Tonga who have arrived boasting a squad of players capable of matching the acts of giant-killing achieved by Fiji in 1987 and by Western Samoa four years ago. Ireland's defeat by Italy a fortnight ago was surely the lowest point of a season briefly lifted from its gloom by the win over Wales in Cardiff. It is a depressing fact for them that were a composite British side to be picked today only Simon Geoghegan and Nick Popplewell would have a chance of selection which, come to think of it, is probably two more than Wales could hope to have included. Their scrap in pool C will be between two mediocre sides hoping that things will come right for them on the day. One of them should at least reach the quarter-final but that is where the odyssey will end. The dark horses and, regrettably it seems there are fewer than there were in 1991, appear to be Italy and perhaps Tonga, with the Argentines, physically impressive but technically limited, the possible qualifiers from pool B should the bizarrely mercurial Western Samoans career off course as they have been doing consistently during the past 12 months.

For the players and officials, the hours between now and kick-off in Cape Town on Thursday will be interminable. There will be little for them but the daily routine of training, time-filling and even more tiresome ritual of official functions to attend. Meanwhile, the war of words will continue with tales of exploitation, extortion and sharp practice before the sporting pageant, the rugbyfest, we hope, to end them all and to herald the dawn of a new era in the game, will explode upon the world's consciousness.

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