Rugby union: England adopt a miserly strategy

Rugby union: Home nations face diverse opposition as World Cup countdown gathers momentum
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The Independent Online
CLIVE WOODWARD'S high-tenacity, body-tapered, fabric-overlaid, compression-shorted, chill-vested, water-repellent England begin the last lap of their World Cup preparation against the United States this evening and while the techno-jargon accompanying the latest red rose strip suggests it was manufactured at Nasa rather than some factory in the Midlands, the coaching panel will be concerned more with age-old basics than with space-age designer kit. Above all, they will be thinking about the most basic of basics: defence.

That may sound unsexy and unexciting, especially as the faithful few who trundle along to Twickenham will consider anything less than a 50- point victory to be an abject failure, but Woodward will happily settle for half a dozen tries provided none are registered in the debit column. History suggests that those who carry off the Webb Ellis Cup in Cardiff in the first week of November will be the side with the meanest set of barricades. At the moment, England's barricades would not survive a French farce, let alone a French Revolution.

The three world champions - New Zealand in 1987, Australia in 1991 and South Africa four years ago - have this is common: they all conceded less than a try a match on the high road to glory. South Africa scored only 13 tries in 1995, compared with the All Blacks' 43, but their defence was more than twice as effective in leaking only five tries in six matches. When the Wallabies won the last tournament to be played in these islands, the supremacy of their tackling and defensive organisation was such their line was crossed on only three occasions. Extraordinarily, they achieved shut-outs against Western Samoa, Wales, New Zealand and England.

Despite the specialised and highly detailed efforts of Phil Larder, the former Great Britain rugby league coach, England have been far more generous to their recent opponents: the Scots put three tries past them at Twickenham in February, the Welsh two at Wembley in April and Australia four in Sydney eight weeks ago. As Martin Johnson, the captain, agreed this week, that sort of profligacy will butter very few parsnips come tournament time this autumn. "The Wallaby match was very disappointing from the defensive point of view," said the Leicester lock. "We conceded tries in situations where we had numbers. Basically, those tries should never have been scored."

Phil de Glanville's return to the midfield should ensure a more bloody- minded approach to the dirty work; the Bath captain remains the supreme defensive strategist available to Woodward and with Jonny Wilkinson, a genuine ton-of-bricks merchant, firmly installed at outside-half, there is unlikely to be much American traffic going through what the New Zealanders call the five-eighths channel. But de Glanville may not be around when the heavy-duty stuff begins in October - Will Greenwood has his sights firmly fixed on the inside centre berth, as does Mike Catt - so Woodward badly needs his entire line-up to buy into the zero tolerance theory.

No one works harder on defence than the Eagles and while England may score a hatful under the Twickenham lights, none of them will be waved through and there will be no sign of a white flag. Their visitors' set- piece technique may not match their enthusiasm, but their pride certainly does. "So they'll push us around in the scrum, maybe," said Jack Clark, the general manager and head coach of USA Rugby who also happens to be one of the great treasures of the world game. "OK, we'll find another way to take the game to them."

Of course, what Clark really needs to find is a method of taking the game to the American people. Quick to dismiss recent British reports of an imminent professional circus in the States, he remains confident that the right things are happening at school and college level. And if the right thing should happen this evening? "Hey, we might even make the New York Times."


at Twickenham

M Perry Bath 15 K Shuman Oxford University

D Luger Saracens 14 V Anitoni San Mateo

P de Glanville Bath 13 J Grobler Denver Barbarians

J Guscott Bath 12 T Takau Gentlemen Of Aspen

A Healey Leicester 11 A Saulala San Mateo

J Wilkinson Newcastle 10 D Niu Mission Beach

M Dawson Northampton 9 K Dalzell Milan

G Rowntree Leicester 1 G Sucher Washington

P Greening Sale 2 T Billups Pontypridd

P Vickery Gloucester 3 R Lehner Old Blues

M Johnson Leicester, capt 4 L Cross Rovigo

D Grewcock Saracens 5 A Parker Gentlemen Of Aspen

R Hill Saracens 6 D Hodges Llanelli

L Dallaglio Wasps 8 D Lyle Bath, capt

N Back Leicester 7 F Mounga Old Blues

Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand). Kick-off: 7.0 (Sky)

Replacements: 16 T Stimpson (Leicester) 17 M Catt (Bath) 18 P Grayson (Northampton) 19 T Rodber (Northampton) 20 T Woodman (Gloucester) 21 W Green (Wasps) 22 N McCarthy (Gloucester)

Replacements: 16 M Williams, 17 C Morrow (both, Gentlemen of Aspen) 18 B Howard (Golden Gate) 19 S Paga (Univ of California) 20 R Lumkong (Denver Barbarians) 21 M L'Huillier (Sydney Univ) 22 K Khasigian (Univ of California).