Rugby Union: Macqueen's eye on youth as he seeks great escape

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The Independent Online
Two new coaches, two teams in transition, two major rugby union powers in need of a victory. England and Australia are big players on the world stage, yet both will be starting afresh at Twickenham on Saturday after recent shake-ups fuelled by failure and recrimination.

Chris Hewett turns the spotlight away from an unfamiliar-looking red rose army and shines it on an equally unsettled Wallaby outfit.

Clive Woodward has done his level best to establish rugby as a young man's game by sending five virgin soldiers into Saturday's intriguing skirmish for the Cook Cup, but while the England coach has broken new ground on the "yoof culture" front, the Australians are still masters of all they survey when it comes to cradle-snatching. Step forward Elton Flatley, a 20-year-old outside-half from Queensland who spent his school years matching, if not overshadowing, the precocious achievements of his great Wallaby forerunners, Mark Ella and Michael Lynagh.

Flatley replaces the injured David Knox as one of three changes to a side depressingly beaten by Argentina last weekend. It will be his first Test and if he fulfils even a fraction of the promise he showed as one of the finest schoolboy players ever seen Down Under, the new national coach, Rod Macqueen, will fall to his knees and whisper a prayer of thanksgiving.

While Woodward could very definitely use an even break in his first international at the England helm, Macqueen is desperate for one. Hell hath no fury like a retired Wallaby with a verbal axe to grind and as soon as David Campese, among others, had digested the full implications of events in Buenos Aires, they let rip with a vengeance. The coach, appointed a mere 10 weeks ago, is already under the cosh and should his side fail once more against deeply inexperienced opponents on Saturday, his current headache will turn into a full-blown migraine.

In fact, Macqueen might easily be feeling more uncomfortable still as he prepares to take on a Twickenham full-house for the first time. Flatley was tempted by a rugby league offer from one of the big-spending Sydney clubs worth a reputed 1.2 million Australian dollars (pounds 600,000) over three years and the Wallaby arm-twisters had to work overtime to keep him on board. They had already lost three of their most treasured prospects - Ryan Cross, Craig Wing and Joel Wilson - to the 13-man game and the loss of Flatley was too awful to contemplate.

As it is, he will line up on Saturday opposite Alex King, who has all of 22 minutes' worth of international experience behind him. "We don't know very much at all about the England side as a whole, although I've just been watching some video footage of Alex," Flatley said yesterday. "The feeling in our party is that they've tried to pick an attacking side, one capable of running the ball. That doesn't surprise me. We Australians have been pretty critical of English rugby down the years but I think the Premiership clubs are doing some exciting things now. They seem to be getting the hang of it."

Macqueen's remaining personnel changes are in the back five of the scrum, where John Langford, of Australian Capital Territory, replaces Warwick Waugh in the second row and Willie Ofahengaue, whose mega-hit performances during the Wallabies' triumphant 1991 World Cup campaign registered 9.5 on the Lomu Scale, takes over from Troy Coker, the former Harlequin, at No 8.

It was, however, a clear sign of Macqueen's indecision that he should have felt obliged to delay naming his side on no fewer than four occasions. The forward unit is giving him nightmares; while the Wallabies have undoubted ability out wide, their pack is but a pale shadow of the one driven along with such controlled power by Willie O and company between 1991 and 1994. Only John Eales, the captain, fits into the world-class bracket, although Richard Harry, the loose-head prop from New South Wales, has a thoroughbred look about him.

"Argentina was a significant defeat, we're not at all happy with it and although I haven't heard the criticism aimed at us back home, you have to expect it when you lose the way we did," Macqueen said. "This Test against England is all about focusing on our own game. I'd like it to be a decent spectacle - the matches in Argentina were not so good from that point of view - but the important thing is to develop the style we're looking for.

"England? Well, I know they have five new caps. Am I surprised or worried about that? It depends how good those five players turn out to be, doesn't it? I actually met Clive Woodward for the first time in a lift in Buenos Aires a couple of weekends ago and we had a drink and a natter, but he didn't give much away. We'll know more about England at the end of this game but more crucially from our point of view, we'll know more about ourselves, too."

AUSTRALIA (v England, Twickenham, Saturday, 15 November): S Larkham (Australian Capital Territory), B Tune, T Horan (both Queensland), P Howard, J Roff (both ACT), E Flatley (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT), R Harry (New South Wales), M Foley (Queensland), A Blades (NSW), J Langford (ACT), J Eales (Queensland, capt), O Finegan, B Robinson (both ACT), W Ofahengaue (NSW). Replacements: M Hardy, S Payne, A Heath (all NSW), M Caputo (ACT), M Cockbain, D Wilson (both Queensland).

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