Rugby Union: Mitchell issues 'do or die' call to England

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The Independent Online
IF A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of knowledge can be more alarming still. John Mitchell, the main man on England's coaching panel in the unfortunate absence of Clive Woodward, understands more than most All Blacks about the workings of the New Zealand rugby psyche and he fully intends to spend the rest of this week shattering any illusions that might remain over the scale of the task the tourists face in Auckland this weekend.

While on the subject of illusions, the caretaker boss has taken immediate steps to disabuse Richard Cockerill, the Leicester hooker, of any notion that his weekend bout of public handbag swinging with Norm Hewitt, the New Zealand A captain, was an acceptable example of alcohol-induced high spirits. Mitchell was fairly fuming with Cockerill as news of the late- night hotel altercation hit the Otago newspapers yesterday.

Both Cockerill and Hewitt did their level best to play down the incident and in truth, their bone-headed antics barely registered on the Richter scale of rugger tomfoolery. But Mitchell still deemed it necessary to summon Cockerill to a private meeting yesterday while John Hart, the All Black coach, confirmed he would be questioning Hewitt at length today.

Born in Taranaki, Mitchell learned his rugby in the rugged environment of Waikato and eventually graduated with honours to take a deserved place among the 1993 All Blacks. He knows exactly how his countrymen will approach Saturday's second and final Test at Eden Park and admits that England are faced with the starkest of choices: either they play out of their skins, or they suffer a thrashing from which they may never recover.

"History tells us that if a touring side is ever going to beat New Zealand in New Zealand, they have to take the chances they are offered in the opening Test," the Sale coach said yesterday. "It is a special quality of All Black sides that they learn incredibly quickly; they always reappear better oiled, more confident, more physical. In actual fact, I wouldn't want to be an All Black on the training paddock this week. They shipped three tries against 14 men in Dunedin and they'll be put through the mill because of it."

The All Blacks should worry. Mitchell is not wholly convinced that Woodward, back in England following the death of his father, was best advised to throw verbal hand grenades at either Hart or Wayne Erickson, the Australian referee, in the aftermath of Saturday's spiteful 64-22 reverse at Carisbrook. "These things have a habit of coming back and biting you," he agreed. "I'm a great believer in not providing opponents with free ammunition. There was a lot of verbal warfare at the weekend and that sort of thing goes both ways."

In Mitchell's unforgiving opinion, those members of Tony Diprose's midweek side who failed to "front up" in today's match against the Maoris could wave goodbye to their England futures.

"We knew some of the less experienced guys would find it difficult at this level," he said, "but this is a last chance for certain people on this tour and if they want to stay involved when we return home, they're going to have to show an ability to get to grips with things."

Given that the Maoris last lost a game in 1993, it was reasonable to assume that one or two English backsides went on the line in Rotorua this morning.