Rugby Union: England's search for meaning

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The Independent Online
ON THE face of it, the indecisive and often incomprehensible collection of suits charged with organising the World Cup have done England's work for them. Clive Woodward's side could go belly-up against a vibrantly enthusiastic Italian outfit in Huddersfield tomorrow afternoon - indeed, they could lose by 50 points - and it would not matter a damn. They would still spend the pool phase of next year's finals in the familiar comfort of Twickenham while Massimo Giovanelli and company might find themselves anywhere.

It takes a special talent for laughable incompetence to make such a convoluted hash of things. Traditionally, a qualifying tournament is exactly what it says it is: a meaningful competition in which sides are rewarded according to their merits. As usual, however, rugby sees things rather differently. Suddenly, England - and Scotland and Ireland too - have become "sub-host unions" and according to the latest of many communiques from the nerve centre of the World Cup (and what a nerve it has), those favoured few will be based on local soil "irrespective of their qualifying position". Well, you can't say fairer than that.

England's 110-point whitewash of the Netherlands last weekend told them precisely nothing about their state of health going into the forthcoming back-to-back rumbles with Australia and South Africa, so Woodward will be particularly tuned in to events. The Italians, meanwhile, have almost as many points to prove as their opponents inflicted on the Dutch.

Two years ago almost to the very day, Giovanelli brought his countrymen to Twickenham for a match they considered crucial to their chances of breaking into the European elite and expanding the Five Nations into something slightly larger. In short, they played like drains; they allowed the Twickenham factor to work its worst on their fragile psyche and suffered a half-century hiding.

"The disappointment of that day still burns inside my heart," said Giovanelli, their France-based captain. "The big motivation for us now is to show how hard we have worked, how much we have improved, in the intervening period. Of course, we havebeen successful in winning acceptance as a Six Nations country and we have beaten Ireland, Scotland and France. To beat England, though, would earn us real respect."

Frustratingly for the visitors, injuries and suspensions threaten to undermine them. Two wings of something approaching world class, Paolo Vaccari and the 52-cap veteran Marcello Cuttitta, are unfit, as is the talented full-back, Javier Pertile. A handful of gnarled forwards are also missing and those who remain will have to play the best 80 minutes of their careers.

England are nowhere near as badly off, but those who are missing - Lawrence Dallaglio, Kyran Bracken, David Rees, Tony Underwood - continue to cast a shadow over tomorrow's active participants. Assuming Dallaglio, for instance, is fit to face the Wallabies a week today, Woodward will surely reinstate him to the back row - a scenario that automatically places both Ben Clarke and Martin Corry under the selectorial gaze.

"It would be ludicrous of me to look any further than this game," said Corry, the Leicester No 8, yesterday. "All I can do is turn in 80 minutes of sufficient quality. I'm not going to give anything away without a scrap because I've geared the whole of my life towards playing rugby for my country. There is no feeling remotely like it, especially now I am involved with a full-strength England team. When I won my previous caps in Argentina, most of the top men were with the Lions in South Africa. This is different. This is the real thing."

ENGLAND v ITALY

at the McAlpine Stadium, Huddersfield

M Perry Bath 15 M Pini Richmond

A Healey Leicester 14 F Roselli Roma

W Greenwood Leicester 13 C Stoica Narbonne

J Guscott Bath 12 N Dallan Treviso

D Luger Harlequins 11 L Martin Begles-Bordeaux

P Grayson Northampton 10 D Dominguez Stade Francais

M Dawson Northampton 9 A Troncon Treviso

J Leonard Harlequins 1 M Cuttitta Calvisano R Cockerill Leicester 2 A Moscardi Treviso

D Garforth Leicester 3 G De Carli Roma

M Johnson Leicester, capt 4 C Checchinato Treviso

G Archer Newcastle 5 W Cristofoletto Treviso

B Clarke Richmond 6 M Giovanelli Narbonne, capt

N Back Leicester 7 M Bergamasco Padova

M Corry Leicester 8 C Caione L'Aquila

Referee: D Mene (France) Kick-off: 3.00pm tomorrow (ITV, 2.30)

Replacements: N Beal (Northampton), M Catt (Bath), R Hill (Saracens), T Rodber (Northampton), G Rowntree (Leicester), D Grewcock (Saracens), P Greening (Sale).

Replacements: S Saviozzi (Benetton Treviso); G Lanzi (Fly Flot Calvisano); A Castellani (RDS Roma); O Arancio (Benetton Treviso); F Mazzariol (Benetton Treviso); G Raineri (RDS Roma); G Mazzi (RDS Roma).

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