Rugby Union: Woodward defends his squad after their record defeat

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The Independent Online
AN embarrassed England party yesterday disappeared into the wide blue yonder for an afternoon's sun, sand, sackcloth and ashes while their coach, Clive Woodward, embarked on the unenviable job of picking over the remains of his side's Brisbane debacle. "If we don't get the bits and pieces right straight away, we'll be crucified in New Zealand," he pronounced.

Predictably, Woodward made it a top priority to defend his squad from the worst ravages of the reaction to the 76-0 massacre meted out by the Wallabies on Saturday night. Try as he might, however, he was unable to spin-doctor his way clear of a defeat that broke just about every record in the book: the most points ever conceded by a Five Nations country, the fifth biggest losing margin in major cap internationals, the most savage beating ever inflicted by one senior International Board member nation on another. Needless to say, the events at the Suncorp Stadium also rendered all Australian records redundant.

"This is a scratch team, as everyone knows, and when international matches begin to slip away from a side as inexperienced as this one, they tend to go big time," said the coach. "I'm not happy that we under-performed and I know we'll all cop a lot of flak as a result of this beating, but I'll come out of it a stronger coach and hopefully the players will come out stronger too."

Woodward reiterated his envy of the Australian structure, which allows Rod Macqueen, the Wallaby coach, to select from three Super 12 sides packed with native talent rather than umpteen Premiership clubs riddled with foreign imports. "Rod couldn't work within the structure I have to contend with and neither could John Hart of New Zealand. They're laughing at us, to be frank with you.

"I'm just going to have to be smarter than the average bear in making the best of the situation in the build-up to the World Cup, where I still believe we can be competitive with a full-strength side. But we should be under no illusions as to the difficulties ahead. The Australians say that Saturday night's game was no more intense than an average Super 12 match and if that's not worrying, I don't know what is."

The coach will now implement a hard-line policy on fitness by flatly refusing to pick any player who over-stretches himself at club level to the detriment of his physical conditioning. "It's down to them to take responsibility," he said in tones calculated to burn the ears of captain Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson and a clutch of other high-profile absentees.

"These guys can't have it both ways; they can't have the financial and egotistical benefits of playing for England at Twickenham before Christmas and then let everyone, including the southern hemisphere, down by pulling out of summer tours. England is a two-way deal. The cop-outs are about to stop."

Meanwhile, John O'Neill, the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union and one of the fiercest critics of the England tour selection, claimed his initial intemperate reaction had been fully vindicated by events. "What can they do, pretend it didn't happen?" he asked. "They painted us as madmen from the southern hemisphere telling them how to run their business, but it wasn't a contest out there. For a country that has figured in the top four in the world to lose by 76 is a crying shame."

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