Rugby Union: Ultimate Tests for future of England

Clive Woodward's squad of rookies arrive in Australia tonight ready for a baptism of fire. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online
A PURPLE-FACED collection of Wallaby apparatchiks have gone out of their way to place this summer's England party in what they consider to be its correct historical perspective: "The biggest sell-out since Gallipoli" was the ill-judged and gratuitously offensive contribution from Dick McGruther of the Australian Rugby Union. Sensibly, Clive Woodward has not responded in kind, but had he chosen to do so he might have misquoted a former cigar-smoking Prime Minister by saying: "Never in the field of sporting conflict has so much bilge been spouted by so many about so little."

England have toured the southern hemisphere with young, inexperienced and largely experimental squads before and will doubtless do so again, especially now that the bumbling blunderbusses of the International Rugby Board have conceded that the constitution of a national team is entirely a matter for the nation concerned. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Wallabies themselves have visited these shores armed with players conspicuous only by their anonymity. The fact that many of those players promptly announced themselves as world-class acts was, surely, the whole point of the exercise.

"The purpose of this trip is to discover exactly how many of the current crop are of genuine Test standard and by the time we get home, we'll know the answers," said Woodward, the England coach, yesterday. "Considering we're less than 18 months away from a World Cup, that information will be incredibly valuable. Priceless, even. I only see positives and pluses arising from the next five weeks or so. It's going to be very interesting, very exciting and, most importantly, very instructive."

Woodward has not changed his opinion of the itinerary, which includes four Tests in seven matches and enough travelling to reduce David Hempleman- Adams to a pipe and slippers man. "Ideally, the five matches in New Zealand would have been the start and finish of it," said the coach, pointedly omitting any reference to the Australian and South African ambushes awaiting him at either end. He is quite right, of course; the Springbok Test in Cape Town on 4 July is an unnecessarily vicious sting in the tail.

Not that there will be many tea parties in New Zealand. "I don't think the players appreciate even now the sort of pace, ferocity and intensity they are about to be exposed to," said John Mitchell, whose value to Woodward as an assistant coach will be magnified a hundred-fold by his rich experience as a former Waikato and All Black captain. "They are going to have to learn and learn quickly, for the culture back home is one of keeping the ball alive and running opponents clean off their feet." Will the Allied Dunbar Premiership have prepared the less experienced tourists for the rigours of perpetual rugby motion? "Well, it's all we have," replied Mitchell, less than encouragingly.

He did, however, agree that the All Blacks themselves are embarking on a transitional spell, having lost Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke to retirement, Justin Marshall to long-term injury and several other renowned Silver Fern foot soldiers to the physical ravages of the high-impact Super 12 provincial series. "There might be one or two unfamiliar faces, but the production line looks in pretty good order to me and rather like our own newcomers, those players called into the Test side will see it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

All of which tended to suggest that the seafaring nature of this week's England "bonding" session on the Solent was organised more in hope than expectation; if the combined talents of the southern hemisphere superpowers amount to a sporting iceberg, the tourists are very definitely several decks short of a Titanic. Matthew Dawson's 37-strong crew are sailing into stormy waters and most hardened realists doubt whether the ship will withstand the first squall.

Yet Woodward was quite justified in his assertion that give or take a handful of high-profile absentees - David Rees, Jeremy Guscott, Will Greenwood, Kyran Bracken, Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back spring to mind - the "form" players were safely on the plane that left Heathrow for Brisbane last night. If the late apologies received from Greenwood and Back are likely to prove severely debilitating, especially with the likes of Guscott, Mike Catt, Phil de Glanville and Richard Hill already on an unavailability list of Proustian proportions, other positions remain very much open to offers.

"No worst case scenario has entered my thinking," insisted Woodward, his upbeat performance sharply at odds with the apocalyptic soundings from Down Under. "What would constitute a success? Coming back home with five or six obvious World Cup contenders to go with those we already know about."

Such a return is entirely feasible; more feasible, certainly, than five or six victories. In southern hemisphere company, three wins from seven outings would be a spectacular triumph.

ENGLAND'S TOUR ITINERARY: Saturday, 6 June: Australia (at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane). Saturday, 13 June: New Zealand A (at Rugby Park, Hamilton). Tuesday, 16 June: New Zealand Academy (at Homestead Stadium, Invercargill). Saturday, 20 June 20: New Zealand (at Carisbrook, Dunedin). Tuesday, 23 June: New Zealand Maori (at International Stadium, Rotorua). Saturday, 27 June: New Zealand (at Eden Park, Auckland). Saturday, 4 July: South Africa (at Newlands, Cape Town).

ENGLAND SQUAD: Backs: N Beal (Northampton), M Perry (Bath), T Stimpson (Leicester), S Brown (Richmond), D Chapman (Richmond), T Beim (Sale), A Healey (Leicester), M Moore (Sale), J Baxendell (Sale), S Potter (Leicester), S Ravenscroft (Saracens), A King (Wasps), J Lewsey (Bristol), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), S Benton (Gloucester), M Dawson (Northampton, capt), P Richards (London Irish). Forwards: D Bell (Sale), G Rowntree (Leicester), A Windo (Gloucester), G Chuter (Saracens), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Greening (Gloucester), D Crompton (Richmond), W Green (Wasps), P Vickery (Gloucester), G Archer (Newcastle), R Fidler (Gloucester), D Grewcock (Saracens), D Sims (Gloucester), B Clarke (Richmond), A Diprose (Saracens), L Moody (Leicester), S Ojomoh (Gloucester), R Pool-Jones (Stade Francais), P Sanderson (Sale), B Sturnham (Saracens).