Rugby Union: Burke sets England target

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The Independent Online
THE LAST time Matthew Burke, the world's finest full-back, played a Test match for Australia, he consigned Taine Randell's All Blacks to the dustbin of New Zealand rugby history and, in so doing, came perilously close to joining his great rivals in the trash can. While the Blacks have yet to extricate themselves from the smelly stuff, however, Burke is about to be recycled: the try-scoring, goal-kicking, all-singing, all-dancing New South Walian will not face Ireland at Ballymore this weekend, but he is very much in the shake-up for an international return against England on 26 June.

Burke suffered such extensive damage to his shoulder while scoring a late match-winning try in the final match of last season's Tri-Nations tournament in Sydney that he was not alone in wondering whether his heroics had cost him a place in this autumn's World Cup. Happily, his fears proved unfounded. The 26-year-old Waratah (the fancy name for a rugby-playing Sydneyite) can now swing his arm like Glenn McGrath on heat and his performance for New South Wales in last weekend's victory over the Irish tourists had Rod Macqueen, the Wallaby coach, in seventh heaven.

Macqueen called his most potent offensive weapon into the national squad yesterday, and even though he intends to pack him off to Sydney at the weekend for a little "club football", he acknowledged that Burke would come into the Test reckoning sooner rather than later. If "sooner" turns out to be before the end of the month, Clive Woodward will have one more tactical migraine to overcome as he attempts to restore England's credibility Down Under following last summer's gruesomely embarrassing 76-0 defeat in Brisbane.

Talking of tactics, John Hart and his embattled All Black hierarchy are up to all sorts of crafty jiggery-pokery on the selection front. Jeff Wilson, the best wing in the game by a country kilometre, will play at full-back when the Blacks open their seasonal account against New Zealand A in Christchurch on Friday, having swapped places with Christian Cullen. In further experiments, Tony Brown of Otago has been selected ahead of Carlos Spencer at outside-half, while Kupu Vanisi, a big hit for Wellington during the recent Super 12 series, gets a run on the open-side flank.

That last move means the bum's rush for Josh Kronfeld, everyone's favourite breakaway loose-forward. Indeed, Kronfeld is not rated among the top 46 players in the country; the New Zealand A back row features John Blaikie, Scott Robertson and Isitola Maka, with Filo Tiatia as replacement. With Jonah Lomu on the bench for the putative Test side and Joeli Vidiri, Walter Little and Norm Hewitt down among the second-stringers, it seems that Hart is following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Laurie Mains, in creating a whole new All Black side just in time for a World Cup.

South Africa are also mixing and matching their available talent, although the changes they have made for this weekend's Test against Italy are more the product of injury than of imagination. Four members of the Western Stormers Super 12 outfit - the wing Breyton Paulse, the centre Robbie Fleck, the lock Selbourne Boome and the tight-head prop Cobus Visagie - will win first caps and there are recalls for Pieter Muller in midfield, Andre Venter in the back row and Naka Drotske at hooker.

In England, the administration team currently managing Richmond RFC have said a pounds 750,000 rescue package from a group calling themselves the Richmond Vikings was insufficient to halt progress towards a tri-partite merger with London Irish and London Scottish. The Rugby Football Union will almost certainly ratify the merger, although the relevant paperwork has yet to reach Twickenham.