Rugby Union: England set to play to an empty gallery

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THE UNITED States Eagles are understandably excited at sampling what the advertising men call the Twickenham Experience tomorrow evening and, somewhat less convincingly, England's World Cup hopefuls insist they are equally "up" for their first full international of an apparently endless millennial campaign.

Sadly, the enthusiasm ends there. Barely 6,000 of the 75,000 available tickets have been sold, a clear indication that the red rose rugby fraternity is profoundly underwhelmed by the prospect of paying top dollar for a floodlit mid-August gambol against what is politely labelled "emerging opposition".

Clive Woodward, the England coach, was adamant that both this match and the follow-up run-out against Canada tomorrow week be played at HQ.

"It's our home ground and it's where we'll be playing all our World Cup pool matches," he explained. His American counterpart, Jack Clark, also banged the pro-Twickers drum yesterday by saying: "I want my players to have as rich a rugby career as possible and performing here is what it's all about."

For all that, we are about to witness the most sparsely attended Twickenham Test of the post-war era and regardless of how the Rugby Football Union attempts to sidestep the embarrassment, an embarrassment it undoubtedly is.

Somehow, the blazers always seem to mess up on these occasions. Instead of awarding the fixture to Leicester or Saracens, where a near sell-out would have been guaranteed - the England second-string were greeted by something approaching a full house at Northampton on Tuesday night - they have shown themselves to be prisoners of their own conservatism and lack of imagination. Laughably, they have not even taken the obvious step of granting free admittance to children.

Talking of which, it is likely to be a case of men against boys tomorrow, as Clark himself conceded.

"We've no choice but to make friends with our deficiencies," he said, colourfully. "We have four full-timers in the side - we run an entire budget on the sort of money one of the guys in the white shirts earns in a season - and while 30,000 passionate American rugby followers will hit the Internet and follow every kick, there will be 250 million people back home who won't even get to read about the game in their newspaper. Think of the most famous rugby player there is and then imagine a country where no one knows his name. That's the USA."

At least they go into the Test in good heart. Led by Dan Lyle, the Bath No 8, the Eagles are missing only two first-choicers: Philippe Farner, their lock, and Richard Tardits, their flanker.