Rugby Union: Diprose looks to 'old hands' for leadership

England's stand-in rugby union captain has issued his rallying cry for the first Test against Australia. Chris Hewett in Brisbane reports
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The Independent Online
IF a natural leader always knows his own mind, Tony Diprose is bright enough to realise that a problem shared is a problem solved. The Saracens No 8 spent last season's domestic Premiership and cup campaigns picking the brains of a veritable Cabinet-full of hardened decision makers - Francois Pienaar, Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella were the support staff from heaven - but he may well discover this weekend that captaincy can also be a very lonely ordeal.

Asked to call the shots in the absence of the injured Matt Dawson, who had been handed the reins only as a result of Lawrence Dallaglio's shoulder problems and the various aches and pains affecting Martin Johnson and Tim Rodber, Diprose spent a humid afternoon in Brisbane insisting that his England charges possessed sufficient vim and vigour to give John Eales' Wallaby outfit a run for their Australia dollars in the first Test at the Suncorp Stadium on Saturday. "We wouldn't be here if we didn't consider ourselves capable of winning," he said in time-honoured fashion. "It's simply up to the experienced guys in the side to pull the new caps through."

And which experienced guys might they be? "I'll be looking to Richard Cockerill, Garath Archer, Graham Rowntree and Austin Healey, players who have felt the pressure of Test rugby and thrived on it. I know what it's like to be capped for the first time, as five of our side will be on this occasion; for the first 20 minutes, you don't really know what the hell is happening.

"Yes, I'm captain, but I can't spend the whole game worrying about the other 14 in the side. I have a performance of my own to worry about."

The only flaw in the Diprose philosophy is that Cockerill and company hardly fall into the "been there, done that, got the T-shirt" category. The withdrawal of Dawson with knee trouble and the consequent emergence of Scott Benton as England's fifth scrum-half in 13 outings leaves the tourists with just 72 caps between them. In stark contrast, four of Saturday's Wallabies - Eales, Tim Horan, Phil Kearns and David Wilson - have either passed the personal 50-cap milestone or will do by the end of the month.

So much for Rod Macqueen's portrayal of his Wallaby selection as fresh, innovative and, in some important respects, experimental. True, Steve Larkham is an unknown quantity at outside-half and there are first Test starts for Tom Bowman and Toutai Kefu in the back five of the pack. Compare them with England, though, and the Australians are bordering on the Tiresian.

Macqueen, the former ACT Brumbies tactician whose thoughtful stewardship of the national side may well bear fruit over the coming months, is certainly intent on putting years on his charges. Based in Caloundra, about 80 miles north of Brisbane on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, the Wallabies must make their way to training by mountain bike rather than the more customary luxury bus.

"Some of these blokes have spent the last couple of years in five-star hotel accommodation and we thought it might be useful to get them out of the plastic lifestyle and back to some normality," explained the coach, who inflicted so many press-ups on his players yesterday that they barely had the strength to turn a pedal.

Clive Woodward, Macqueen's English counterpart, was rather more laid back, even though Dawson's sudden unavailability must have left him wondering if he would ever escape the jurisdiction of Sod's Law. "People talk about us being under pressure, but to my way of thinking we're under no pressure whatsoever," he said. "There is a huge amount of enthusiasm for this contest. I think we'll be very competitive indeed on Saturday and I'm convinced we'll do English rugby proud.

"I'm more than happy with Tony as captain - it was a tough call to choose Matt above him in the first place - and I'm perfectly confident that Scott will prove a high-class replacement at scrum-half. We're pretty hopeful that Matt will be fit for the start of the New Zealand leg of the tour next week, but I'm not going to say now that he will be captain for the rest of the trip. That very much depends on what happens against the Wallabies. Believe me, we have a fresh young side just raring to go. I saw England's defeat in Sydney last year and, quite frankly, I think it was a mistake to select players who had just come off a hard Lions tour."

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