Return to the paint-ball battle

INSIDE THE ENGLAND CAMP
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The Independent Online
A lot has been written about Johannesburg, not all of it complimentary. But for the next four or five days it provides the base for the next part of our Rugby World Cup campaign, and home it is.

Durban, with its long beaches and sub-tropical climate, already seems a long way away. Added to which we now have the problem of altitude, located as we are 6,000 feet above sea level.

Our first training session up here was a short, snappy period of handling followed by a five-a-side football challenge. Even in this low-key runaround each breath is a struggle for enough oxygen and the long-ball game takes on a new dimension.

Before this session we had probably our most important meeting of the week to decide exactly how we will structure the next few days to prepare best for Sunday's quarter-final against Australia. A lot of lessons had been learned from the time spent preparing for the group games. Paramount was the need to maintain the progress we made in lightening the atmosphere within the squad. In the long wait for the first World Cup game against Argentina the tension had become quite unbearable and it is important that we do not allow that to happen this week.

By the end of our time in Durban we were positively enjoying training as well as our time in between official functions. To a great extent this was demonstrated by the way we played against Western Samoa. There were lapses which allowed them to score three tries, but on the whole our defence was very rugged, comparing well with their much-vaunted physical prowess. We also unleashed some very potent attacking rugby. We were later informed that 10 million viewers back home tuned in and so we are especially pleased that we were able to put on a game worthy of that audience.

Incidentally, two things which annoyed us as a squad were the way the side picked to play Western Samoa was belittled and the suggestion that we might have wanted to throw the game.

Firstly, this England squad are not losers and secondly it should now be clear to everyone just how strong a squad we have assembled and what a high level of understanding we have engendered, which allowed a new combination to gel so well. In fact, the outcome is that now the selectors have many more options to choose from and their decisions have become that much harder for the games to come.

So what of this week? For one, the sessions will be shorter, allowing us to focus on one our main themes of striving for sharp, reactive rugby. We will train every day but, whereas today the backs will have a second low-key day, the forwards are keen to get in another series of spotters (line-out drills) and a heavy scrummaging session. Meetings will centre on analysing the Aussies to begin with and will gradually switch emphasis from what we feel they are going to do to what we shall.

The only regulation imposed on us, to the chagrin of some members of the squad, is that alcohol is a complete no-no for all. So with this social option knocked on the head the chaps are keen to have another paint-ball battle (forwards versus backs, of course) and take in some go-karting, ten-pin bowling, golf, films, pool, chess, reading and listening to music.

Myself, I have another roommate to annoy with the saxophone in the shape of Ian Hunter. He has the perfect riposte though, for he himself has an acoustic guitar. A bit of jamming and we will enlist the help of Damien Hopley, a mean pianist and singer to perform. However, performances are restricted to squad members, you'll be glad to hear.

Despite all these distractions it is obviously very hard for us to keep our minds off the small matter of Australia on Sunday in the quarter-finals. The initial group games were almost the sideshow to the main event about to kick off this weekend. Bring it on...

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