Rugby Union: Fit England spark fears for the Dutch

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ENGLAND WOULD appear to have adopted a safety first approach for today's confrontation against the Netherlands, which is probably understandable given that they would never live down anything but a perfect performance against these World Cup outsiders.

According to the coach Clive Woodward, the England squad has never sweated so much under him in training as they have in this past week as they build- up to their World Cup qualifier at Huddersfield's McAlpine Stadium. "I think we have trained harder this week than we have for any normal international," Woodward said. "There was a bit of niggle from the players because they were being worked so hard."

Neither Woodward nor his squad are leaving anything to chance. Even though Woodward admitted: "I have been to see the Dutch and it is clear that we should beat them," there is no doubt that the players are under strict instructions not to slacken their grip. Relentlessness is something the coach will be looking for from his charges.

Woodward said: "We have set a lot of performance standards for the game, so we hit highs in every area. We are trying to be very professional about it.

"I am hoping that we can come out of this game with a very low error count. I have played in games myself which have been rather one-sided, when we have almost had too much ball. And that potentially could happen [today].

"We must just be very clinical about what we are doing. If there is such a thing as a game plan against the Netherlands it has to be a very straightforward one. We undoubtedly have better players than them and so we are looking to play a very uncomplicated game."

That approach, coupled with what the captain, Martin Johnson, wants to do - "We have to establish domination as soon as we can in as many phases as we can. We will approach this as we would any other Test match" - is as good a pointer as any of what the Dutch can expect.

And if there were any doubters, Woodward is also happy to announce that: "There is no doubt that this is a fitter squad than the one I took over last year straight after the Lions tour, where the culmination of three or four years non-stop rugby left the players that much more drained.

"Players I worked with last year are far sharper and fitter, physically and mentally, than they were 12 months ago. So there can be no excuses. They are in good physical shape."

However, it is that level of preparedness which has started alarm bells ringing in certain quarters over this apparent mismatch. The prospect of England's professionals - harder, fitter, stronger - going flat out against the raw amateurs of the Netherlands has sparked fears for the well-being of their inexperienced opponents, particularly in the set scrums. Yet there is no way England are going to adopt a safety first approach in this regard.

Woodward said: "We have not spoken about the possibility of injuries at the scrums. Player safety is the responsibility of the referee. If the referee sees that something is not right he has to act, and I would expect our players to comply with any instructions from the referee."

Something he would have liked to see from the referee would have been the use of the sin bin, but unfortunately white cards can only be brandished in the domestic arena, and even then only in matches involving Premiership sides, until ratification and adoption by the International Board. "I am disappointed about that," admitted Woodward. "I think we should have uniformity across the board at all levels of the game."

It will come, and so will victory for England today. But it will have to be a big win if they are to avoid criticism.

The Dutch, meanwhile, are determined to let Johnson's men know they have been in a contest, regardless of the score.

The loss of their best player, the utility back five man, Thomas Suring, has left them undeterred.

The Netherlands captain, Mats Marcker, said: "We will try to slow the pace of the game to one we are comfortable with."

No doubt his motley crew of students, carpenters, accountants and police officers will give their all. Safety last in all probability.


World Cup qualifier at the McAlpine Stadium, Huddersfield

M Perry Bath 15 A Webber London Kiwis

A Healey Leicester 14 O Winkels Haagsche RC

W Greenwood Leicester 13 R van de Walle Leidse RC

J Guscott Bath 12 G Everts Reading

D Luger Harlequins 11 G Viguurs Den Bosch

P Grayson Northampton 10 B Vervoort Oisterwijk

M Dawson Northampton 9 M Marcker Castricum, capt

J Leonard Harlequins 1 J van de Ersch West Hartlepool R Cockerill Leicester 2 A Seybel Haagsche RC

D Garforth Leicester 3 R Philippo Amsterdam AC

M Johnson Leicester, capt 4 P Faas Oisterwijk

G Archer Newcastle 5 R Donkers Roosenedaal CC

B Clarke Richmond 6 R van de Ven Peyrehorade

N Back Leicester 7 N Holten Waikato

M Corry Leicester 8 C Elisara Wakefield

Referee: R Durhan (France) Kick-off: 3.00pm (ITV, 2.30)

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

Replacements: S Ramaker (Rotterdam RC), R Lips (Haagsche RC), R Kofman (Castricum), G Bloemsaat (Amsterdam RC), H Brat (Haagsche RC), T Schumacher (RC Eemland), P Hudson (Newcastle).