Rugby Union: England left in shade by Henry magic

Woodward still faces a number of key questions but his Welsh counterpart has found answers. By Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online
IT LOOKED like a fluke, it felt like a fluke, it even smelled like a fluke. When Scott Gibbs spreadeagled the England defence and claimed the winning try in the dying seconds of that wonderful Five Nations finale at Wembley in April, the red rose cognoscenti shrugged their shoulders philosophically and said: "Make the most of it, Wales. Come World Cup time, you'll be back in the gutter where you belong."

Oh yeah? Three more wholly unexpected victories - two in Argentina and the other, extraordinarily, over South Africa - have left a scarlet incendiary device ticking away beneath the top table of the international game.

It is not just England who feel threatened by the dramatic rebirth of a fire-breathing Red Dragon; the southern hemisphere countries are beginning to shiver as well. As Gary Teichmann, a chastened Springbok captain, asserted in Cardiff on Saturday night: "This Welsh team genuinely have as good a chance as anyone of winning the Webb Ellis Cup in November. People had better believe it."

The Welsh themselves certainly believe it and that is the point. Rob Howley and company used to enter the Test arena in hope rather than expectation but, after the last three months or so of unimpeded progress, that equation has been reversed.

The Welsh victory on Saturday left their nearest and dearest from the far side of Offa's Dyke profoundly gob-smacked. "Christ, that's one hell of a result," said Clive Woodward, the England coach, on hearing the news from the Millennium Stadium. "Fair play to Graham Henry, he's got them playing for him," agreed Ben Clarke, the experienced former Lion who had won his 40th cap against Australia in Sydney just seven hours previously. "It makes for one almighty World Cup."

Recent events have made a serious mess of the theory that England and France are the only countries capable of mixing it with the Bokks, the All Blacks and the Wallabies in any meaningful fashion. When the World Cup draw was confirmed earlier this year, Wales were by no means the bookies' favourites to top their pool ahead of Western Samoa and Argentina. Two victories in Buenos Aires, combined with an unusual degree of Samoan fragility on home soil, have recast the hosts as racing certainties to make the last eight in short order.

England, meanwhile, can be nowhere near as confident of winning an automatic quarter-final place as pool winners now that the New Zealanders have hit the ground running with a new-look back division and a revitalised pack. It seems a peculiar state of affairs at the end of a decade in which they have utterly dominated rugby in the British Isles, but the English are suddenly less sure of themselves than the Welsh. Woodward's men have been within touching distance of the game's glittering prizes in recent months, only to crumble in the face of resistance. By contrast, Henry's troops have won six battles on the trot and are beginning to think in terms of winning the war this autumn.

Woodward insists that the three weeks spent on South Stradbroke Island before last weekend's Centenary Test defeat by the Wallabies will count strongly in his team's favour in October. "It's petrol in the tank and money in the bank," he said in Sydney. "We will be one of the best prepared sides in the tournament." Yet in many ways, England's chances of making a significant World Cup impact rest with a handful of players who never quite made it to that spartan patch of rainforest off the Queensland coast.

Lawrence Dallaglio remains central to the cause, not only as a ball-carrying forward of unusual brilliance and a line-out specialist of genuine potency, but as a simple force of nature. Without him, England struggle to locate an extra gear when the pace of a game hots up and they find it difficult to dig in for survival when they find themselves in extremis. If the ongoing drugs scandal denies Woodward the opportunity of naming his former captain in his final 30 at the beginning of September, the campaign will be flawed from the start.

Two other influential, if very different, players should also be high on the coach's wanted list. Will Greenwood of Leicester, still the most accomplished inside centre in England, and Phil Vickery, that rough-necked scrummaging tight head from Gloucester, are due to clock in at the Petersham Hotel in Richmond on 19 July for three days of unmitigated physical torture. If they survive their respective trials and earn themselves a MoT certificate apiece, Woodward will probably throw a party. He knows full well that his midfield configuration needs further adjustment, just as he knows that his front row is lacking a bit of nasty.

"Quite simply, it's up to them," said the coach. "The same goes for Paul Grayson and Will Green, two other guys who have been struggling with injury. They either make the fitness cut or they don't. If they pass, they'll be under consideration for the final squad. If they fail to come up to scratch, they'll be on the bus. We head off to Devon for a week with the Marines at the end of the month and then we're into the World Cup warm- ups, so it's vital that people at least prove themselves capable of playing 80 minutes of international rugby before we take our preparation up another notch."

Woodward is wise to bide his time in the hope that his treasures will reclaim their place in the shop window, but it will not have escaped his notice that the Welsh have already declared their hand. Difficult thought it is to credit, all the certainty is on the far side of the Severn Bridge.