Rugby unioin: Woodward wounded by tale of the tape

Dawson recovery provides hope for coach as formidable All Blacks threaten further red rose woe, says Chris Hewett in Rotorua
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The Independent Online
IT DOES not get any easier with the passage of time; quite the opposite, in fact. Clive Woodward spent yesterday in front of the video recorder dissecting England's lamentable capitulation at the hands of the Wallabies last weekend, only to discover that the tale of the tape was even more grisly than the original evidence presented by his own eyes. "I thought it was bad on Saturday night, but I didn't know the half of it," admitted the coach on arrival in the Bay of Plenty.

If he did not immediately appreciate the depths to which his fledgling internationals descended in Brisbane on Saturday, Woodward now accepts that they managed to make Frank Spencer appear organised. "We're appalled, every one of us. We were all over the place, particularly in terms of defence, and looking back, I don't think I managed to get anything across to the players during the build-up to the Test. I've watched the footage of the game more times than I care to recall and I promise you, it seems worse now than it did at the weekend.

"Retrospectively speaking, we asked too much, too quickly, of a bunch of new players. I'm not trying to be a martyr when I say that I deserve to take the rap - when a business goes wrong, the guy at the top gets the blame and rightly so - and I can assure you that had a fully prepared, fully representational England side lost by 76 points to anyone, I'd either have had them training straight after the game on Saturday night or I'd have gone after them with a shotgun.

"But the facts are these: three or four days of jet-lag denied us the opportunity to focus as directly as we might have done last week and as a consequence, important tactical information was not taken on board. We should have started the tour with this weekend's game against New Zealand A but the itinerary changed, Australia was bolted on and we walked first up into a full-scale Test against a very hot side indeed. It was a disaster, as everyone knows, but we're working on it."

Much of that work was carried out in a wet and miserable Rotorua last night. Woodward was particularly cheered by Matt Dawson's contribution to the evening's sweat-shop proceedings; the tour captain from Northampton, absent in Brisbane, negotiated an exceptionally physical contact session and will almost certainly play at scrum-half in Hamilton this weekend.

"We've got some experience available to us with Matt and Ben Clarke in the frame and I think we'll have closed the gaps sufficiently by then to give the match a real lash," said the coach. Sadly, New Zealand A will have a whole lot more experience, not to mention a clear-cut advantage in terms of pace and power. Jonah Lomu's appearance on the left wing after recent injury hassles virtually ensures as much.

As per usual, the New Zealand selectors have picked a side calculated to inflict both short and long-term damage on their guests. They possess exceptional explosive power on both wings, where the brilliant Glen Osborne partners Lomu, and with Lee Stensness, unfortunate not to make the Test party, installed at stand-off, the creative spark has already been lit under an England side still nursing first-degree burns inflicted by the Wallabies.

If, however, England manage to withstand the initial onslaught, they will almost certainly find themselves being driven into the Waikato dirt by a handful of seasoned Test forwards. Norm Hewitt, Blair Larsen and Andrew Blowers have all been selected for the Hamilton tussle and Blowers, in particular, is in blinding form.

"The thing that really gets to me is my envy of other countries and other set-ups; it gets to me here and it certainly got to me in Brisbane," revealed Woodward yesterday. "Take a guy like George Gregan [the Wallaby scrum- half]. He is playing 26 games a season top whack and he knows in advance exactly what those games are likely to be. He gets three clear months to indulge in the power training necessary to any athlete and as a result, he joins all the other Wallabies in starting his season looking like Linford Christie. From one to 15, the southern hemisphere players are bigger and stronger than we are.

"In a way, I'm pleased and relieved that the Lawrence Dallaglios, Martin Johnsons and others aren't here on this trip. They have the opportunity get themselves fit, put in the requisite three months of hard training and, hopefully, come out the other end looking and playing like the Wallabies and All Blacks. On the one hand, I get pissed off talking to people like Gregan. On the other, I know he and his colleagues are doing everything right."

Despite the very English Brian Rix farce enacted at the Suncorp Stadium five days ago, the profile of Woodward's charges is getting higher by the minute. If Australian rugby was rudely dismissive of the tour squad from the word go, the New Zealanders are taking the opposite tack by showing microscopic interest in the red rose party.

"They just breathe rugby here," said the coach, who undertook the tortuous north island trip from Albany, the venue for an impressive All Black trial, to Rotorua in the company of a three-hour radio phone-in on the make-up of the New Zealand Test side. "The passion is something else and it gives us a benchmark to aspire to. If you're not prepared to play your best rugby here, you won't play it anywhere."

Unfortunately for England, their hosts tend to adopt a similar philosophy. Judging by what happened on that extraordinary day in Cape Town three years ago, the very last thing Woodward needs to see is Lomu and company operating at anything resembling their best.