Rugby Union: A world of difference

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The Independent Online
WHAT A world of difference between the Welsh and English rugby fortunes yesterday. Wales smashed their way through the historic hoodoo of the South Africans with an inspiring display while England were left with their World Cup preparations in disarray.

What a way for the Welsh to christen the new Millennium Stadium - or at least the half of it that is finished. Wait until the other 45,000 join the 27,000 fortunates who packed one end of the incomplete arena, the noise will be ear splitting. It was deafening enough yesterday as the fans welcomed the sight of the Welsh pack performing an awesome job. Once you have a pack providing a platform that good your backs can do the rest and that's what happened to the Welsh.

They didn't have it all their own way. At the start of the second half the South Africans hit them with an onslaught I felt sure they would buckle under. But apart from Werner Swanepoel's try they kept them out with some heroic defending. Neil Jenkins controlled most of what was going on behind the scrum and he helped see to it that the valiant work done up front did not go to waste. The Welsh can now take a well-earned rest before they come back to test themselves and the stadium against France and Canada in August.

Meanwhile, the English picture is nothing like as rosy. They failed to bring many positives out of their match against Australia, but they can be sure of one thing - they can't go into the World Cup hoping to dominate up front. They must brush up their running game, and that demands the return of Will Greenwood in the centre and nailing Jonny Wilkinson to the outside-half position once and for all.

The late try from Matt Perry, one of England's few successes on the day, made the scoreline look fairly respectable, and I didn't think David Wilson's try should have been allowed, but they mustn't kid themselves. They were convincingly beaten.

This is all the harder for them to bear because for the first half-hour it looked as if everything was going their way. Their forwards were strong and solid and in a mood to give the Australians nothing but grief, the defence was aggressive and organised and when Perry opened the scoring after 26 minutes everything looked great.

Then suddenly they lost it and within 10 minutes Australia had claimed control. There were a few encouraging flurries from England in the second half but their game was a mess in so many areas. The line-out revealed serious weaknesses I didn't think were possible, and the kicking out of hand was worryingly aimless, players were kicking for no obvious reason apart from a lack of a better idea.

And, for the life of me, I can't understand what Clive Woodward is trying to do with the switching of roles between Wilkinson and Mike Catt. There is absolutely no logic to it and I've never known such a ploy to work at this level. I wrote last year that Wilkinson had to be given the No 10 shirt and persevered with through the Five Nations to give him the chance to become the controlling influence. Now the World Cup is almost upon us and he has little time to establish the confidence you need to play well in that position. But do it he must if England are to rebuild the faith and optimism they will need.

The two tries that Ben Tune scored in the last 10 minutes of the first half were like watching a nightmare unfold. Scoring tries from set-pieces is very difficult these days but Australia were allowed to do it twice within 10 minutes. And in both Wilkinson was occupying the centre role, when he should be organising the defence from the outside-half position and nowhere else. I shall be very surprised, shocked even, if they ever make that mistake again.

It is a bit late for England to be learning lessons as basic as these. Whereas Australia will now go confidently into the Tri-Nations series, where their game is going to be considerably honed and hardened, England are going back to the drawing board without much opportunity to put things right under battle conditions.

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