Rugby Union: Bracken inspired by `silent destroyer'

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THE "OTHER" rugby code enjoyed a big night out Down Under yesterday as the crash-bang-wallop merchants of Queensland and New South Wales knocked seven bells out of each other in the State of Origin decider. Everything Clive Woodward and company needed to know about killer instinct and blood- and-guts commitment - about how to win the glittering prizes rather than admire them from afar - was there on display and it was impossible not to feel that the England tourists would have been better off watching the red raw action on television rather than hovering around the finger buffet in Sydney City Hall.

Still, rugby union remains a sport fossilised in its own formality; Centenary Tests mean centenary celebrations and the Australians, who first engaged in international activity against the Reverend Matthew Mullineux's British Lions 100 years ago this month, could not resist the temptation to dust off their DJs and crack open the bubbly. If it was an unwanted distraction for the Wallabies, it was more difficult still for England. They wanted to be in purdah, not on parade.

Yet there is a growing sense of purpose about the red rose squad and that feeling was articulated in typically intelligent fashion by Kyran Bracken after a wet and wild training session at the Sydney Academy of Sport in Narabeen yesterday.

The Saracens scrum-half put forward the intriguing hypothesis that England would have been in serious danger of fooling themselves had they won the Grand Slam by beating Wales in that cliff-hanger of a Five Nations finale at Wembley in April.

"I believe that losing the game might well have been the best thing for us," said Bracken. "Had we won, we might easily have overlooked a number of things about our game that simply weren't right and paid the price in the World Cup. I think we played predictable rugby throughout the tournament and what happened against Wales merely confirmed that we are still behind the three major southern hemisphere powers, not least in terms of ruthlessness and killer instinct.

"That instinct comes more naturally to some rugby nations than others and we are one of those sides who need to work at it. South Africa put 100-plus points on Italy last weekend and if we're honest with ourselves, we don't put teams away by that sort of margin. Every England side I've played in has lacked that little something; we have the capability to beat the New Zealands and the Australias, perhaps more so than any other British team, but we are fully aware of the need to sharpen our mental edge."

Which, according to Bracken, is where Martin Johnson comes in. "As a captain, he is less vocal than, say, Lawrence Dallaglio. In fact, he really doesn't say much at all. He doesn't have to. I can only describe him as a silent destroyer; his attitude is uncompromising and aggressive and he plays his rugby right on the line. Basically, you want him on your side rather than against you. He's a grafter and he expects hard graft from his players."

No one grafts harder than Neil Back, whose role in fetching and carrying for Bracken, Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Catt will be one of the central planks in England's attempt to register a first victory over the Wallabies in Australia on Saturday night.

A fanatical trainer, Back was in seventh heaven during the squad's unrelenting stint of warm-weather conditioning on South Stradbroke Island - "There wasn't anything to do except train and go to bed," he quipped merrily - and he was still on a roll yesterday as he mulled over the threat posed by Australia's remodelled midfield.

"The fact that Tim Horan is playing at stand-off rather than centre makes things a little different for me," he agreed. "I've seen him play on numerous occasions, of course, and he's a class act, but whether he can click into the demands of the outside-half position with such little preparation remains to be seen. All players of his quality possess a good kicking game, but I'd expect him to play the ball through the hands a little more than a full-time No 10. It's an interesting selection and it will certainly affect the way I approach the game.

"In a way, though, it doesn't matter who the Wallabies play where. We've prepared far more thoroughly for this game than is usually the case; back home, we tend to go into an international off the back of a hard club game and spend only a few days together.

"This is our last really serious examination before the World Cup and it's going to be a fantastic occasion. Sure, we slipped up against Wales, but that was a heat on the way to our Olympics. As I'm sure you're aware, the eventual gold medallist doesn't necessarily win every heat."