Rugby Union: Underdogs pray for their day

Tim Glover suggests there is much for England to gain on their controversial tour
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ON THE face of it, it's another implausible mission, a potential tour de farce. The itinerary alone takes some beating, unlike England, who are venturing to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on what appears in rugby terms to be a bucket-shop ticket. They are travelling light, no victory speeches to declare.

When Clive Woodward named his party for the five-week tour which starts this week, the Australian Rugby Union described it as the "biggest sell- out since Gallipoli". This ludicrous response was prompted by the fear that the Australians would have trouble filling Brisbane for the Test Match on 6 June. Who would pay towards an England Kindergarten XV? Almost as ludicrously, the Australians then saw box-office appeal by promising a "Pommie thrashing". Woodward and his untested squad - in fact they are travelling business class, a reflection that they mean business - should exploit such sentiments to the full.

The Lions were written off last summer and it was a useful motivational aid. The Lions were fortunate in that the Springboks believed the publicity. They were under the impression they would score a sufficient number of tries to make the selection of a recognised goal-kicker an irrelevance. Besides a magnificent defence, the Lions had a world-class kicker in Neil Jenkins and by the time the Springboks cottoned on to the plot, the series was lost.

England, of course, did not have the resources of the Lions, but this tour should not be regarded as a lost cause. The heart of the pack, Jason Leonard, Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill, and most of the backs, Kyran Bracken, Paul Grayson, Jeremy Guscott, David Rees, Mike Catt and Phil de Glanville, are among those taking time out.

Had these players, particularly Johnson and Dallaglio, who were regarded as indispensable, been fit and fresh, they would have been at the top of Woodward's list. But they are not. They are stale and/or injured. And as Woodward pointed out, ineffective performances towards the end of the season meant they were not guaranteed their international places.

Whether he likes it or not, Woodward now has the chance to blood younger players, not only for the short term in the southern hemisphere, but for the World Cup next year.

In some respects, this may be a charge of the light brigade but nobody can say for certain that it will end in slaughter. "We are travelling to the three strongest rugby countries on earth," Woodward said. "And the last thing I wanted to take are players whose reaction would be 'oh no, here we go again'. The people selected should have been jumping up and down with excitement."

In the front row, Phil Vickery has a chance to emerge as a major force; a second row of Garath Archer and Danny Grewcock could go all the way and in the back row Ben Sturnham and Tony Diprose should relish the trip. If Jonny Wilkinson is as good as Newcastle say he is, he could be stand- off with Matt Perry, the young player of the year, at full-back or centre. As Guscott recognises, there is a risk in not touring and that involves being bypassed for the World Cup. "I hope there are a lot of worried players at home," Woodward said.

Everybody feared the worst at the beginning of the season when England's Lions returned home to be confronted by what was described as the fixture list from hell: Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. England salvaged two draws, the second of which against the All Blacks was one of the most memorable matches ever played at Twickenham. In the New Year, England's pack, more pertinently the front row, was out-driven in Paris by the French in a match that decided the Five Nations' Championship. Dallaglio, a good choice as captain, did not regard the winning of the Triple Crown as a cause for celebration.

When Woodward succeeded Jack Rowell last year it was on a three-year contract designed to incorporate the World Cup. "My goal," he said, "is to win the thing." As it stands, England would not be favourites to be top team in Europe, let alone the universe, but Woodward and his players have had other things on their minds. It is not easy to concentrate in the midst of a civil war.

Woodward has found the political side of the conflict not only boring, but harmful. He has not been left with the party he wanted and the schedule is hostile. There are only seven games, but they include four Tests, one against Australia, two against the All Blacks and a finale to end all finales against the born-again Springboks in Cape Town. Woodward's idea of an ideal end of season tour was no more than five matches in one country. The Australian leg has come about because of a deal done by the RFU when England were threatened with expulsion from the Five Nations.

But it is not all black. A stopover in Los Angeles to play the Eagles, just by way of earning several thousand air miles, has been dropped. Apart from the opportunity for uncapped players to meet the challenge and earn an upgrade, the tour will examine Woodward's ingenuity and reveal the character of the Premiership. Those who play in it, not just the English but a host of nationalities, maintain it as a league fit for ultra professionals. This tour will help to evaluate its quality.

It coincides with the beginning of the New Zealand season - the All Blacks are holding a trial on 8 June - and in addition to two Tests, England play New Zealand A and the New Zealand Academy. Many of the players will have featured in the Super 12 series and Woodward is aware that the opposition will be formidable. Throw in a match against the seemingly invincible Maoris and you have a formula for one hell of a laxative.

England have never beaten Australia in Australia and have not won in New Zealand since 1985. With no great expectations, England, under the captaincy of Matt Dawson, will have to learn to fight the fight of the underdog.