Rowell looking for Lions' spirit in England Test

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

If the history books are to be believed, Captain James Cook suffered fewer setbacks during his voyages to Australia than English teams have encountered in their seven futile attempts at winning a game of rugby there. Appropriately enough, the two countries will compete for a new trophy, the Cook Cup, here on Saturday and once again, the visitors are in serious danger of sinking without trace.

Not only are the vast majority of the English out on their feet - understandably so after following up a debilitating domestic season by embarking on a draining Springbok adventure with the Lions - but, to make things more difficult still, the Wallabies are in the mood for blood.

Their 30-13 defeat by New Zealand in last weekend's Bledisloe Cup match earned them such a verbal hammering from an impatient Australian rugby public that 80 minutes of ritual Pom-bashing is being seen as a golden opportunity for a quick fix.

To that end, Greg Smith, the Wallaby coach, wielded the big stick during an extraordinary training get-together. He laid into his side with a vengeance, accusing them of a lack of integrity and pride before putting them through a particularly sadistic session aimed more at teaching them a lesson than honing their fitness in readiness for this weekend's one-off Test.

"You can't have people laughing at you," Smith said. "I haven't spoken like that to a team for a long time. I wanted them to know that we - the team management - were disgusted."

By contrast, Jack Rowell, the England coach, was positively serene as he welcomed his Lions back into the fold. "They've come from one continent to another, and both physically and psychologically they've been with another team for the best part of two months, but they've landed with a fizz, they're in the mood and are training with intensity," he said yesterday.

"In actuality, the last few weeks may catch up with them when they take the field. We shall see. For England to do well against Australia, we need a carry-over from South Africa."

Like Smith, who has made six changes to the Wallaby team and strengthened his back division considerably by immediately reintroducing Matthew Burke and Jason Little following their recoveries from injury, Rowell has shown a willingness to experiment, most strikingly on the right wing. John Bentley, rated far higher by the Lions selectors than by their English counterparts last season, will play his first game for his country since scoring a breakaway try in Brisbane nine summers ago.

Matt Dawson, another of the less predictable success stories from the Lions tour, is also back after sliding from first to fourth-choice scrum- half last season.

To what extent Rowell can effectively apply himself to his role given the continuing uncertainty over his future in the England set-up is a moot point, although he was careful to make all the right noises yesterday by distancing himself from the petty power struggles now rife among the barons of Twickenham as they prepare for tomorrow's annual meeting. "My contract as coach ends on 31 August," he said. "Rugby Football Union politics are no concern of mine."

However, Rowell is more aware than anyone of the fragility of his own position. Cliff Brittle, the RFU executive chairman ostracised by his own committee during last season's interminable wrangle with England's senior clubs, is not exactly an ally of the national coach and should he emerge from the annual meeting with his power base intact or enhanced, a change at the top might not be long in coming.

One obvious candidate to replace Rowell would be the New Zealander Graham Henry, who has just masterminded an extraordinary Auckland side to their second successive Super 12 title. Sources in New Zealand insist that Henry has received a firm offer from the RFU, and the coach himself said: "I am a professional rugby coach. I have been approached by people other than New Zealand and I am considering those approaches."

The Wallabies may prove a tough nut to crack but as far as England are concerned, Sydney has more going for it than Twickers just at the moment.

AUSTRALIA: M Burke (New South Wales); B Tune (Queensland), J Little (Queensland), J Holbeck (Australian Capital Territory), J Roff (ACT); T Horan (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT); C Blades (NSW), M Foley (Queensland), E McKenzie (ACT), G Morgan (Queensland), J Eales (Queensland, capt), B Robinson (ACT), T Coker (ACT), D Manu (NSW).

ENGLAND: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Bentley (Newcastle), N Greenstock (Wasps), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), T Underwood (Newcastle); M Catt (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), D Garforth (Leicester), N Redman (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), L Dallaglio (Wasps), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens). Replacements: A Healey (Leicester), A King (Wasps), N Beal (Northampton), K Yates (Bath), R Cockerill (Leicester), B Clarke (Richmond).

n The British referee Ed Morrison has been criticised by Australian officials following his handling of the Bledisloe Cup match against New Zealand. Morrison was accused of not acting on his warning to send off transgressing All Blacks. Morrison will also control the return in Melbourne on 26 July.