Rugby Union: A month to meet and beat the world

Chris Rea says England will do well to break even in a ground- breaking series
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The Independent Online
It is an impossible mission but an irresistible one for the rugby yeomanry of Old England. In the next three weeks they must confront the three best sides in the world, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, so good they are playing them twice. The rewards for success, both material and psychological, are huge; the price of defeat is equally awesome, but, if after the four-match series England have broken even, they will have every reason to be satisfied. To do that, they must start with a win against Australia at Twickenham on Saturday.

Of the three powers, the Wallabies look the most vulnerable, although with a potent blend of political chicanery, bone-headed obstinacy, tactical ineptitude and rank bad selection, the Springboks have turned the wine of 1995 into the present-day water.

No Australian representatives go into any sporting contest without the expectation of victory, but one senses that a result for these tourists would be to return home with a style, a strategy and a team capable of winning the World Cup in 1999.

At this stage in their development, they are some way short in all three departments, having an unsettled pack and backs whose threat has not yet lived up to their promise. They do, however, possess a priceless asset in John Eales, their captain. He is the most accomplished forward of his generation, not only a consistent provider but a skilled creator. In short, he is the finest slab of all-purpose machinery in world rugby, but as a beacon of light for Australia, he also presents a juicy target for opponents who know that by blunting the influence of Eales they can seriously reduce Australia's fire-power.

Contrast this with the All Blacks, whose immense riches in key positions is already causing them some embarrassment. All right, so their tight five have been on the block long enough to be listed as have Frank Bunce and Walter Little in the centre. And Zinzan Brooke, his pension scheme so generously secured by Harlequins, may not even make the Test side. But Andrew Mehrtens or Carlos Spencer at fly-half? What a choice. There is not another country in the world which wouldn't cry out to accommodate both, but the All Blacks have no need to play one of them out of position.

The moment when the child prodigy Spencer entered the arena at Twickenham last season remains a sublimely vivid memory. The New Zealand Barbarians were wobbling against an English side in full flight. Spencer was then introduced as far from the comfort zone as it was possible to be. He was not coming on to be given experience in a match where the result was already a foregone conclusion, but was going out there with the coach's expectation that he would win the match. Which, in the most thrilling fashion, is precisely what he did.

It is this philosophy which Clive Woodward must hope to instil in his charges, but it will take longer than a few weeks. He is confronted by many years of resistance to change. Writing in these pages last week, Mark Evans, the director of coaching at Saracens, lamented the decline in scrummaging techniques and the serious decrease in the number of top- quality props in this country. He recalled the 1977 Lions tour to New Zealand when the All Blacks were in such disarray against the might of the tourists' scrummage that they were reduced to a damage limitation policy of a three-man scrum. Carnage it certainly was. It is also true, however, that although the All Blacks came a distant second in the scrums, they won the series for the simple reason that as irresistible as the Lions were, their backs, indiv- idually good enough, were hopelessly inadequate as a unit. Throughout the history of the game, the New Zealanders have been perfectly happy to lose a battle provided they won the war. Britain, on the other hand, has for the last quarter of a century been obsessed by forward strength. This has been especially true of the game in England and even under the enlightened commands of Mike Davis and Geoff Cooke, England have relied too much on the total dominance of their pack to win matches.

What is so intriguing about the forthcoming series is that Woodward is unlikely to have that luxury. The only certainty in the front row is Jason Leonard and even then it is uncertain where he will play. The back five, with Martin Johnson, Garath Archer, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Neil Back and Tim Rodber to select from, are easier to predict, but once again injury and uneven form have to be taken into account. If scrummage superiority is no longer enough in itself to win matches, a hint of frailty in this department can be enough to lose them on the basis that it affects so much of what happens behind. Leicester's outstanding back row is a case in point. And there have been times this season, notably at home against Toulouse, when, without a stable platform in front, they have been reduced to the ordinary.

Woodward's problems, alas, are not confined to his forwards. He cannot be sure about the combination of his half-backs, or his midfield. And there remain question marks over one of the wing positions and full-back. Clearly he wants to field Alex King - if he can be satisfied of the fly- half's fitness - which is encouraging news, provided he gives the young man the assurance of an extended stay. To partner him at scrum-half I would opt for the more tactically conventional Kyran Bracken, although Matt Dawson has had his moments this season. I believe that Woodward's sense of adventure will extend to pairing Will Greenwood with Mike Catt in the centre, and to choosing David Rees and Adedayo Adebayo, who is in a rich seam of form both in attack and defence, on the wings.

If Tim Stimpson's domestic strife at Newcastle prevents his appearance at Twickenham, and if Woodward really does want to go for broke, then Matt Perry would be full-back. His electrifying pace would give England's back play a new dimension and he is a brave, if erratic, defender. It is a risk the Australians and the All Blacks would probably take, but although it would be a bold move for Woodward it is likely to be a step too far at this stage in the coach's career.