Rugby union: Cherry hue for red rose

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The Independent Online
THIS TIME last year, Graham Henry was being pursued up hill and down dale by an England hierarchy who had convinced themselves that the national team needed some southern hemisphere-style planning and foresight. Henry demonstrated foresight all right; his decision to reject the Twickenham shilling in favour of life in Auckland meant that last weekend's 76-zip humiliation in Brisbane landed in Clive Woodward's lap rather than his own. Clever devils, these New Zealanders.

Tomorrow, Henry and Woodward pit their wits against each other in Hamilton, where a powerful New Zealand A side boasting lashings of All Black know- how take on another unfamiliar England outfit based on the biff-bosh forward traditions of Gloucester and the sparky, unorthodox running game currently in vogue at Sale. A good 20,000 Waikato rugger-buggers will be present and every last one of them will expect Jonah Lomu, Norm Hewitt and company to win by 40.

"England will feel that the worst is behind them, that they can only improve on their performance against the Wallabies," said a cagey Henry yesterday. But then, Rod Macqueen, the Australia coach, was equally cautious before watching his side break virtually every record under the southern sun. Henry knows that a simple victory will not satisfy a New Zealand public that now takes for granted the ritual slaughter of stronger opponents than these.

There are long odds against England winning any of their five games in All Black country and the tourists' inherent fragility was underlined again yesterday when they proved themselves unable to complete a straightforward training run without shedding a prop. Duncan Bell, the young loose-head from Sale, withdrew with a shoulder injury sustained in a heavyweight collision with Steve Ojomoh, the revitalised Gloucester No 8, and was replaced by another Cherry and White tribesman, Tony Windo.

Whether the preponderance of Gloucester forwards will inspire a more physical, not to say downright mean, approach from the England pack remains to be seen, but Phil Greening, the lavishly gifted young hooker with a penchant for open-field running, was in spirited mood as he weighed up the prospects yesterday. "We complement each other extremely well and we see this as an opportunity to restore some pride," he said. "I'm looking forward to tangling with Hewitt, because it's only by playing against men of his standing that you find out whether or not you have what it takes. It's just a shame that Sean Fitzpatrick has bottled out. I'd have liked a go at him, too."

Bold words indeed. But England will need some swagger, some vim and vigour, if they are to survive the second leg of what has all the makings of a desperate tour. The New Zealand A fixture, followed by the game with the New Zealand Academy at Invercargill on Tuesday, have long been regarded as the only bright spots in the itinerary from hell and two defeats will leave Woodward's squad a long way up the Waikato River without a paddle.

"We've said enough about Brisbane; the whole squad felt the pain of what happened, we were all devastated and the only way to look at things now is to treat this match as a win-or-bust job," said Josh Lewsey, a super- confident if disaffected outside-half from Bristol. "If you'd watched us train this week, you'd know how much work we've put in on defence. It's been hitting, hitting, hitting, from first minute to last. We'll tackle tomorrow, definitely."

Lewsey, a physiology student at Bristol University, was due to receive the results of his finals today; indeed, he completed his examinations in a Brisbane hotel room last week. Whatever the outcome of the 21-year- old's academic labours, a fully-fledged All Black like Lee Stensness, the New Zealand A stand-off, is likely to present him with his most demanding test of the summer so far. In the light of poor Jonny Wilkinson's problems in Brisbane last week, a "pass" for Lewsey tomorrow would make Woodward and England a whole lot happier.

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