Rugby Union: England anticipating speed in `House of Pain'

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The Independent Online
JOHN MITCHELL'S contention that no one undermines the development of British rugby more efficiently than a British referee is likely to be borne out at Dunedin's "House of Pain" this weekend. Mitchell, the hard- bitten All Black from Waikato now gainfully employed as England's assistant coach, expects the opening Test with New Zealand to be driven along at speeds calculated to make the average Five Nations' Championship match look like a sit-down strike.

His fears were borne out by New Zealand's refereeing development officer, Keith Lawrence, and Paddy O'Brien, one of five full-time professional officials recently appointed by the All Black union. Both men anticipate Test matches firmly based along Super 12 lines; in other words, high-impact affairs with an emphasis on continuity. England will not be permitted to slow down opposition ball in the time-honoured European fashion and if they try, they will find themselves either whistled into oblivion or rucked off the park.

Two Australians, Peter Marshall and Wayne Erickson, will control the Test series and if they take the same break-neck approach as the Wallabies, who inflicted the ultimate thrashing on England in Brisbane 10 days ago, the tourists will have to come up with some very good answers indeed when they reach Carisbrook on Saturday.

"The domestic game in England is far too slow," said Mitchell, who forged a reputation for fast, physical and unrelenting rugby during his captaincy of Waikato in the early years of the decade. "I don't see why we can't play at a Super 12 gallop; I think the skill levels are beginning to shape up pretty well. But it's down to the refereeing, especially the difference in tackle law interpretation that you find either side of the equator. There are too many bodies around the ball in the English game; we need to quicken up the game, improve our fitness and make our big hits much, much bigger. It's the only way to compete.''

Events in Brisbane indicated that whatever recent progress England have made in that direction, they have another few hundred miles to travel. Even though the tourists rolled up their sleeves and manned the barricades against the All Black second-string in Hamilton on Saturday night, the local cognoscenti felt their side was knocked off-beam by the weather rather than anyone in a white shirt.

England's committed display against New Zealand A succeeded in gingering up the interest in this weekend's Test. Almost 3,000 people watched Taine Randell's All Blacks train in Queenstown yesterday.

Clive Woodward, the England coach, was delaying his Test selection until after today's match with the New Zealand Academy in Invercargill. Several players put down their markers at the weekend, however; Steve Ojomoh and Ben Clarke are now hot favourites for the back row, probably at the expense of Tony Diprose and Ben Sturnham, while Phil Greening has his nose ahead of Richard Cockerill for the hooker's berth. Nick Beal is virtually assured of a start at outside centre, with Matt Perry returning to his favoured position of full-back.

The New Zealanders' mood has not been lightened by feverish rumours of English recruiting parties scouring New Zealand for possible Premiership talent. Both Nigel Melville, the director of rugby at Wasps, and Rob Smith, his chief coach, were in Hamilton at the weekend, ostensibly to talk to Josh Lewsey, the England outside-half, but also to run the rule over one or two Tongan internationals. Zinzan Brooke, the recently-retired All Black great now heavily involved at Harlequins, is also said to be on the look-out with his chequebook close at hand.

"I think it's a sad reflection of the state of rugby in England that they seem incapable of developing their own players," said David Moffett, the chief executive of the New Zealand Union. His line was echoed by Woodward, who has long been concerned at the numbers of overseas imports earning a crust in the Premiership. "We'll start paying for it a couple of years down the line," he warned.

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