Rugby Union: Rowell's future imperfect

Australia 25 England 6
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Australia 25

Tries: Burke, Tune, Gregen, Horan; Conversion: Burke; Penalty: Eales.

England 6

Penalty: Stimpson; Drop goal: Catt.

Strange days indeed in rugby's theatre of the absurd. After travelling half-way round the world to engage in one of the most fatuous Test fixtures in living memory, England now find themselves deep in watershed territory. By the time the poor bloody infantry lace up their boots for the first of next season's pre-Christmas internationals - and with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in town simultaneously, there are plenty of them - they may well find themselves under the stewardship of an entirely new hierarchy.

Jack Rowell and Phil de Glanville are keen, desperately so, to continue as coach and captain of their country, but events in Sydney last week suggested a very different scenario was about to unfold. The inaugural Cook Cup match with Australia may have been utterly meaningless in the rugby sense, for the Wallabies had only to stay awake to see off a comprehensively knackered post-Lions England side capable only of shambling on auto-pilot from scrum to line-out and back again. From a wider perspective, however, the occasion was pregnant with significance.

Deeply upset by the Rugby Football Union's bovine insensitivity in sounding out rival candidates for the coaching job during the build-up to an already difficult game, Rowell confirmed yesterday that if and when push comes to shove, business interests would take precedence over rugby. He was not, he said, prepared to continue as top dog if the RFU demanded a full- time commitment, and in light of the way he was treated last week, no one with an ounce of common sense could conceivably blame him.

And de Glanville? His undoubted captaincy skills were undermined by a slack defensive performance at the Sydney Football Ground and he will now do extraordinarily well to hold his place in the side, let alone resist Lawrence Dallaglio's overwhelming leadership credentials. Will Greenwood, the uncapped Lion from Leicester, and Jeremy Guscott - "Still world class," according to Rowell - are racing certainties to begin next season's campaign as England's new midfield partnership, with Nick Greenstock third in line.

Indeed, the whole face of the England side may now take on a fresh complexion. Regardless of the instability of his own position, Rowell is busily plotting and planning on the personnel front with a view to blooding a new generation of influential movers and shakers in advance of the 1999 World Cup.

"Greenwood is the sort of ball-playing centre who will be crucial to breaking down regimented, across-the-field defences," he said yesterday. "Now that Tim Stimpson is kicking at Test level, Alex King will increasingly come into the picture at outside-half. And we'll be looking closely at the front row, where props like Matt Volland and Will Green are the future. It's a matter of how fast they can progress."

If the Lions demonstrated the central importance of mobile, handling prop forwards to any modern game plan worth its salt, the Wallabies reminded Rowell of the overriding need for outright pace in the back three. Ben Tune, Joe Roff and, in particular, Matthew Burke fairly murdered England in the wide open spaces on Saturday night, and had the Wallaby loose forwards been operating on anything like the same wavelength, the visitors would have been dead and buried long before Tune's game-busting try on the hour.

"We have pace available to us, but when you look at quick wings like Jon Sleightholme and Tony Underwood, you soon realise that the Tunes and Roffs of this world have size and power, too," Rowell said. "We're talking 6ft 2in and 14st plus here and that's the modern requirement. We need more competition on the wings, as we do at prop."

When Burke, probably the finest full-back in the world despite the consistently bewildering All Black contributions of Christian Cullen, cruised sleekly on to the shoulder of Roff to run in the opening try after just 11 minutes, Rowell and his fellow back-room staff must have feared a 30-pointer by half-time. Not only were England unable to threaten in attack, they were completely at a loss as to how to extricate themselves from their own half. (Remarkably, it took them 46 minutes to find their way into the Australian 22).

Yet traces of the Lions spirit remained firmly embedded in the marrow and with Dallaglio, Tim Rodber and Richard Hill defending the ramparts with the same fire and passion we saw in Cape Town and Durban, the Wallabies encountered all manner of obstructions and frustrations. John Eales' 22nd minute penalty was cancelled out by Tim Stimpson and when Mike Catt dropped a shrewd goal a quarter of an hour into the second half, a hint of yet another smash and grab raid on the southern superpowers hung tantalisingly in the air.

It was all in the imagination, sadly. De Glanville's very public missed tackle on Tune allowed the Queensland wing a free ride into the left corner and whatever stuffing may have been left inside England's collective body was removed by a flash of brilliance from Burke, who freed Tune with a sublime one-handed pass on the right touchline and then watched with arms aloft as George Gregan completed the score with a 30-metre run to the line. Tim Horan added a fourth try six minutes from time, courtesy of some smart work from Roff.

"The circumstances of the game were not ideal, of course," Rowell admitted. "But there was a good side to the fixture in that it was an initial investment in regular competition with a side as good as Australia, something I've been crying out for repeatedly in recent years.

"You have to remember that we have just completed our first year of professionalism and over that period, the players have become fitter and more skilful. As each year passes, we will take big strides forward. The southern hemisphere sides will progress too, but with smaller strides. I can see us catching up increasingly with the best the world has to offer, and while we're short of immediate depth in one or two areas we're advancing rapidly to the extent that I can see us going the distance in the World Cup in '99."

Whether Rowell is permitted - or, indeed, permits himself - to go that same distance is now the mootest of moot points. We can be sure of one thing, though; if the RFU blazers continue to treat their coaches like so much debris in the gutter, they will betray England far more completely than a couple of missed tackles under the Sydney floodlights.

AUSTRALIA: M Burke (New South Wales); B Tune (Queensland), J Little (Queensland), J Holbeck (ACT), J Roff (ACT); T Horan (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT); C Blades (New South Wales), M Foley (Queensland), E McKenzie (ACT), G Morgan (Queensland), J Eales (Queensland, capt), D Manu (New South Wales), T Coker (ACT), B Robinson (ACT).

ENGLAND: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Bentley (Newcastle), N Greenstock (Wasps), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), N Beal (Northampton); M Catt (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), D Garforth (Leicester), N Redman (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), L Dallaglio (Wasps), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens). Replacements: Australia: A Blades (New South Wales) for McKenzie, 66. England: A Healey (Leicester) for Dawson, h/t; B Clarke (Richmond) for Hill, 69.