Rugby Union: Bracken the hub of new England

'We weren't provoked by the underdog tag. We played the way we wanted to'; Tim Glover speaks to the player who kept the mighty New Zealand guessing
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After 60 minutes of the Breathless Test at Twickenham last weekend, Kyran Bracken was shattered, not so much by the unflagging pace as the decision of the England coach Clive Woodward to replace him with Matt Dawson. To say Bracken was annoyed is an understatement. "I was knackered," he admitted, "but so was everyone else. I don't know why I was replaced. I haven't spoken to Clive about it yet but I will."

The tactical substitution apart, Bracken is on Woodward's wavelength and he intends to follow him to the World Cup in 1999, by which time England will get down to some serious business.

The draw against New Zealand was quicker than anything seen in High Noon and had more suspense but England, Bracken emphasises, ran out of ammo. "We blew ourselves out after 30 minutes. If we had been fitter we would have won," the scrum-half said. "We became less industrious and let them back in. In the last 20 minutes it looked as if we'd run ourselves into the ground. It's the first time we had played an expansive game of such intensity and it made us realise how unfit we are."

While those privileged to see the game were still talking about it, Bracken was running up and down the Saracens training ground, carrying an extra burden. Sandbags. "You can never be too fit."

Bracken, just turned 26, has been in and out of the England side for four years. He played in the victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham in 1993, during which he got stamped on by Jamie Joseph, and has served under Geoff Cooke, Jack Rowell and now Woodward. He has been on the bench to Dewi Morris, Andy Gomarsall, Austin Healey and Dawson and after the latter had an outstanding Lions' tour to South Africa, Bracken was surprised to be recalled. Playing on the winning side for Saracens against Northampton helped. "I wouldn't say I outplayed Dawson but I got the ball away quicker than he did."

Bracken reappeared in the draw against Australia and the First Test against the All Blacks at Old Trafford but missed the heavy defeat to South Africa. "We should have done a lot better against a poor Australian side and went into our shells. At Old Trafford we showed we could break the All Blacks down and the result should have been a lot closer. We thought we'd get some praise but we got a rollicking instead. It was back to the drawing- board."

Few people gave England a ghost of a chance at Twickenham but it is a measure of the improvement that they were disappointed with what was regarded as an honourable draw. "The biggest advance we made was that we played the way we trained," Bracken said. "That was the biggest joy. We executed the moves we had practised. We'd only shown signs in previous games. Another factor was that we'd been together for a month and it was a bit like being on a mini tour. It was bound to click at some stage and what better stage to do it on."

There were other reasons why the All Blacks looked as confused as Muhammad Ali after The Greatest had been dumped on his backside by Henry Cooper. Woodward and his assistant John Mitchell instilled great self-belief. "We never felt we had our backs to the wall," Bracken said. "We weren't provoked by the underdog tag. We played the way we wanted to and we knew we could beat them if we kept the ball in hand. Everyone talks about the All Blacks as being an almighty team. Why? They have size, pace and power. So have we. They have some cracking players. So have we. At half-time it never crossed our minds thatthere would be a backlash. Our aim was to play in the same vein. We talked about the speed of getting back on our feet after a tackle."

Then there was the contribution of Bracken, who saw it as his job to raise the tempo and was repeatedly in New Zealand's face, and the new partner Paul Grayson. The alignment between them was adjusted and Grayson's accurate, quick passing put England in a new light. "He proved many wrong," Bracken said. "Everybody thought he was just a kicker but he showed he can run a game."

Finally, there's Woodward. "He's changed the philosophy," Bracken went on. "England had always played to their strength which were forward dominance and using the boot. We weren't the most exciting side in the world. We were behind New Zealand and South Africa, not because they were bigger and stronger but because we had a different style. If you can recycle possession you're not afraid to try things because you know you're going to get the ball back. There's also been a huge drive to make the management side second to none. Under the old regime, unless you played an absolute stinker, you were in for 10 years. Now you're picked on form.

"Clive will apologise if things don't go right. He is very honest and the players are more honest with themselves. He's so passionate about the game, about what he wants to achieve. It's great to see him get emotional with the players. He massively wants to win the World Cup.

"He knows England could never do it the way they used to play. He wants to play the game he has in his mind and he's confident we can do it. What we have to do is play for 80 minutes the way we played for the first 30 at Twickenham." Roll on the Five Nations.