Rugby Union: England's paranoia seems justified

Dunedin Test: Woodward seeks any advantage to close class gap as All Black maverick offers underdogs hope
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The Independent Online
MATT DAWSON definitely knows the team, the All Blacks are more or less sure of the team and nine-tenths of the population of New Zealand have spent the last day and a half reading about the team in their newspapers, but Clive Woodward remains unshakeable in his refusal to utter a single syllable on the subject of his line-up for tomorrow's opening Test at Carisbrook. "We won't be confirming anything until an hour before kick- off," said the England rugby union coach at the end of a bizarre session of insin-uations, half-truths and Chinese whispers. John le Carre, eat your heart out.

"From now on, I will not release precise details of our side until the morning of a match at the earliest," insisted Woodward. "I want to set the precedent because when we get to the really important battles in next year's World Cup, I'm determined to give myself every conceivable advantage over the opposition. I'm not saying the All Blacks will be unable to sleep because I haven't specified our team details for this match - to be honest, they won't lose much shut-eye whoever we send out to face them - but I think it's perfectly logical to keep people guessing for as long as possible. Why make their jobs any easier?"

Why indeed? Woodward's logic has been less than infallible in the 10 months since he took hold of the England reins; his frequent flashes of inspiration have been punctuated by the occasional faux pas born of an over-active gambler's instinct and a philosophical preference for the theoretical over the pragmatic. But the coach may well have it right on this issue. Great teams apart, most sides benefit from the horses-for- courses approach and there is no point whatsoever in saddling up the preferred steeds a week in advance.

"When we won the toss against New Zealand A in that downpour in Hamilton last weekend, they were absolutely desperate to know whether we were going to play with the wind or against it," said Woodward. "Why? Because they had one scrum-half able to kick brilliantly down wind and another able to run brilliantly into it. It was a totally calculated move on their coach's part and hats off to him. In retrospect, we shouldn't have told them anything. It's the name of the game nowadays."

As it is, the tourists look virtually certain to enter the so-called House of Pain for their first-ever Dunedin Test with Tim Stimpson on the right wing, Josh Lewsey at inside centre and Jonny Wilkinson at stand- off. Ben Clarke and Steve Ojomoh will start in the back row alongside Pat Sanderson, a new cap. In the front row, Richard Cockerill appears to have held off the energetic challenge of Phil Greening, the one selection that beggars belief.

Woodward is under no illusions as to the scale of the task confronting him. "No English side should concede 76 points to anyone, yet we did so to the Wallabies 13 days ago," he said. "This has been a huge challenge in terms of coaching, man management and intellectual adaptation and I'm the first to admit that the lack of progress shown by some of the players on this tour, especially among the backs, has been a disappointment. But we won't lose by 76 this time. I think we'll have the right guys on the pitch."

Sadly, so will the All Blacks, who go into their first international of the season with a full-strength pack boasting Anton Oliver, Robin Brooke and the great Michael Jones, all of whom passed fitness examinations yesterday.

John Hart, their coach, has spent the week preparing the unforgiving New Zealand rugby public for an underbaked, below par performance, but the word on the street has the home side at least 40 points better than the tourists in spite of their shortage of Test conditioning.

"Our training has been no better than average," said Hart yesterday, scrupulously avoiding the pertinent fact that one dropped pass in an All Black session constitutes a public inquiry. "We have a new captain and new players in key areas of the side and when you leave a period of stability and find yourselves up against opponents who refuse to name their line- up, preparation becomes a little difficult.

"But we're a humble side, one that understands that the achievements of 1996 and 1997 no longer have any real credibility. It's a new year and we know that nothing will happen for us unless we make it happen. England will put out the best available team and we expect a very physical encounter against a side well organ-ised at the line-out, strong in the scrum and looking to restore some pride."

With two rookie skippers on display - Dawson of England and the brilliant Taine Randell of New Zealand - the early stages of tom-orrow's confrontation are likely to be fiery and inconclusive, especially as visiting hard nuts like Garath Archer are only one bad game away from demotion.

But no one seriously doubts that Andrew Mehrtens, Walter Little and the stunning All Black back three of Lomu, Wilson and Cullen will cut loose at some point during the proceedings. When they do, it will be a case of Goodnight, Sweet Chariot.

NEW ZEALAND: C Cullen (Wellington); J Wilson (Otago), M Mayerhofler (Canterbury), W Little (North Harbour), 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), M Jones (Auckland), T Randell (Otago, capt), J Kronfeld (Otago.

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