Rugby Union: England's damage control plan

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The Independent Online
NOT FOR the first time in his colourful career, John Hart hit the nail square on the head. "Any international side with its back to the wall tends to be pretty desperate," pronounced the All Blacks coach and no one who has witnessed the full horror of England's southern hemisphere humiliation these past three weeks will argue. The tourists have indeed been desperate. Desperately bad.

Very nearly as bad as the foul-smelling atmosphere surrounding tomorrow's second and final Test at Eden Park. "I sincerely hope there will be no spill-over from last week," said Hart, referring to the many and varied examples of underhand skulduggery that blighted the opening confrontation in Dunedin. The response of John Mitchell, Hart's countryman and opposite number, was rather darker in hue. "There is a time and place for dealing with the opposition but you have to be careful," he said, not terribly diplomatically.

Amid further allegations, counter-allegations and ill-tempered spats over what has become known as the Ian Jones Affair England continued to dodge, bob and weave over the make-up of their team. This much is certain: Dave Sims will make a first international start in the second row for the suspended Danny Grewcock while Tom Beim and Jos Baxendell, the Sale threequarters, will take over from the out-of-form Tim Stimpson and Jonny Wilkinson. It is also likely that Tony Diprose's one-man show against the Maori in midweek will win him the nod over Steve Ojomoh at No 8, although the wet weather may force a change of plan.

Baxendell's is by far the most intriguing promotion. According to the battle plan pieced together by Mitchell, Brian Ashton and the other tracksuited strategists, he will alternate between inside centre and outside-half, depending on field position and who has the ball. England see him as their most potent attacking weapon and believe he can pose the rock-solid All Black defence the odd headache.

"I don't kick the ball a great deal," admitted Baxendell yesterday. "To my way of thinking, positive rugby is all about lying flat rather than deep and looking to beat opponents in one-on-one situations. Unless you do that, you inevitably find yourself playing behind the advantage line. When you're up against a side as strong in the tackle as these All Blacks, that is no place to be. You have to make things happen."

Baxendell certainly caused a happening or two against the Maori in Rotorua on Tuesday, especially when he moved inside to fill the stand-off position vacated by Alex King; he made the opposition think twice with his calculated angles, oblique passes and occasional extravagances with ball in hand. Given that the All Blacks' own Bunce-less midfield has been further disrupted by Walter Little's foot injury - Caleb Ralph, a 21-year-old unknown from Auckland, makes his Test debut at centre - England have at least gambled in the right sort of area.

Without tempting providence, it is true to say that this is one of the least experienced New Zealand sides to enter the Test arena since the so-called "Baby Blacks" did battle with the French in Christchurch 18 years ago. They have a new, albeit outstanding, captain in Taine Randell, a rookie hooker in Anton Oliver, a fresh and not entirely convincing scrum- half in Junior Tonu'u and a pair of centres in Ralph and Mark Mayerhofler who might have difficulty recognising each other at the bar.

What team could overcome the almost simultaneous departures of Little, Frank Bunce, Justin Marshall, Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones and Zinzan Brooke? Sadly for England, they will discover the answer tomorrow. The All Blacks have sufficient miles on the clock up front to know their way around the forward exchanges and they possess four players of indisputable world class outside in Andrew Mehrtens, Jonah Lomu, Jeff Wilson and Christian Cullen. They are too clever, too fast and too damned good for these particular tourists.

It is possible that England will buck the general trend of New Zealand touring by making a better fist of the second Test than the first. To do so, they will need Garath Archer to rise above his ankle problems and stoke the fires of confrontation as he did last weekend.

In the end, though, we are talking damage limitation. It is a mark of the gulf between the sides that while England would celebrate a 20-point defeat, the All Blacks would leave by the back door and go into hiding.

NEW ZEALAND: C Cullen (Wellington); J Wilson (Otago), C Ralph (Auckland), M Mayerhofler (Canterbury), J Lomu (Counties); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), O Tonu'u (Auckland); C Dowd (Auckland), A Oliver (Otago), O Brown (Auckland), R Brooke (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), T Blackadder (Canterbury), T Randell (Otago, capt), J Kronfeld (Otago). Replacements: J Vidiri (Counties), C Spencer (Auckland), M Robinson (North Harbour), I Maka (Otago), B Larsen (Northland), C Hoeft (Otago), N Hewitt (Southland).

ENGLAND (probable): M Perry (Bath); T Beim (Sale), N Beal (Northampton), J Baxendell (Sale), A Healey (Leicester); J Lewsey (Bristol), M Dawson (Northampton, capt); G Rowntree (Leicester), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester), G Archer (Newcastle), D Sims (Gloucester), B Clarke (Richmond), A Diprose (Saracens), P Sanderson (Sale). Replacements: T Stimpson (Newcastle), S Ravenscroft (Saracens), S Benton (Gloucester), S Ojomoh (Gloucester), R Fidler (Gloucester), W Green (Wasps), P Greening (Gloucester).

n Seven England players are already on the way home, the most notable being Alex King, the Wasps outside-half. King was joined by Dominic Chapman, Matt Moore, Peter Richards, Stuart Potter, George Chuter and Duncan Bell.

n Wales will wait until the morning of the match before they decide whether to risk playing their injured captain, Rob Howley, against South Africa in Pretoria tomorrow.

WALES: B Hayward (Ebbw Vale); D James (Pontypridd), M Taylor (Swansea), J Funnell (Ebbw Vale), G Evans (Llanelli); A Thomas (Swansea), R Howley (captain, Cardiff); M Griffiths (Pontypridd), B Williams (Richmond), J Davies (Richmond), I Gough (Newport), A Moore (Swansea), N Thomas (Bath), K Jones (Ebbw Vale), C Charvis (Swansea). Replacements: D Williams (Llanelli), S Jones (Llanelli), P John (Pontypridd), G Lewis (Pontypridd), C Wyatt (Llanelli), D Morris (Neath), G Jenkins (Swansea).