Rugby Union: Woodward focuses on `criminal' failure to finish job

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The Independent Online
IT IS not Clive Woodward the tactician that England need now, but Clive Woodward the psychiatrist. At some point during the final three months of World Cup preparation, the national coach will have to leave the technical theory - the line-out configuration, the tackle-count chart, the midfield alignment and all the rest of the backroom blarney on the blackboard - and concentrate his efforts on the far more complicated task of teaching his players how to win. The red rose brigade can do the fiddly bits in their sleep. What they cannot get their collective head around is the important bit.

In truth, Woodward himself could probably do with a spell on the analyst's couch before attempting to get inside the minds of his players. Having watched England blow the Wallabies clean out of Stadium Australia during the first half hour of Saturday's Centenary Test and open up a seven-point advantage that might easily have been 12 or 14, he then saw them disappear in a fog of insecurity that bordered on blind panic. Freud would have had a field day with this lot, although the prospect of exploring Richard Cockerill's subconscious might have been too much even for the good doctor of Vienna.

Woodward watched the video of the game as soon as he returned to the team hotel and, on his own admission, could barely believe the evidence of his own eyes. "We kicked the ball six times in their 22," he groaned. "Six times! It's almost criminal. Even Neil Back and Richard Hill kicked away opportunities and these are our star players, our world class operators. I'm in no doubt at all that we're right up there with the Wallabies, the All Blacks and the Springboks in terms of what we can do on the field, but, unlike them, we have difficulty believing just how good we are. Confidence is priceless and between now and the World Cup, we need to find some."

Time and again during their opening salvo, England silenced the 81,000 crowd by controlling the ball through six or seven phases and then slicing open the Wallaby defence with sharp half-breaks and fast, flat cut-out passes. The new midfield concoction of Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Catt worked sufficiently sweetly to give Nathan Grey and Daniel Herbert some seriously sweaty moments, while Dan Luger and David Rees both achieved the considerable feat of leaving their opposing wings clutching handfuls of damp Sydney air. Better still, Matt Perry proved, as if proof were still needed, that he is the most gifted full-back produced by England for many, many moons. "Staggering," said Woodward of the 22-year-old. "I'd back him against Burke or Cullen or Wilson at the moment."

Interestingly enough, Perry was one of the few Englishmen prepared to back himself on Saturday. He opened the scoring with a stiletto-sharp finish on 27 minutes - muscular rampage from Hill, faithful support from an otherwise quiet Tim Rodber, inspired final ball from Catt, sheer heaven - and was also there to round off proceedings in injury time as his clubmates, Victor Ubogu and Phil de Glanville, combined to create a consolatory try in the left corner. His defensive game might have been designed by the architects responsible for the Great Wall of China, his bravery knew no bounds. "I believe in my own ability," he said afterwards, his head full of stitches and the left side of his face swollen and purple. So, at last, do his critics.

But that sense of self-belief was not one of England's common denominators; when the Wallabies came back at the visitors towards the interval, as a team of their quality were bound to do, the discipline evaporated and the steel softened under the pressure. Annoying little errors resulted in agonising reversals in fortune: Cockerill's fumble at a ruck on his side's right touchline led directly to Ben Tune's blistering finish in the opposite corner, while Catt's fluffed restart and Martin Johnson's mistimed line-out jump allowed Tim Horan, Chris Latham and Joe Roff to work Tune clear for the second half of a crippling double whammy shortly before the break. "They'd given us a real headache for 30 minutes and it was a worry, but you tend not to worry too much with a back line like ours," said David Wilson, the Australian captain.

And therein lies the gap. It was impossible to imagine Tune or Roff - or Horan or Herbert or Burke or Latham come to that - failing to maximise the opportunities that fell to Luger, Rees and Jeremy Guscott at defining moments of a tough, unforgiving encounter. "You can't teach people how to finish," admitted Woodward. "You don't walk onto the training paddock saying: `Today, we're going to work on being ruthless'. It will come, I'm convinced of that. But the waiting can be hard."

Just as it was hard on Saturday to accept the legitimacy of Australia's fourth and decisive try, claimed by Wilson in the right corner after some characteristically forthright approach work from the aggressive George Gregan. Wilson clearly lost control of the ball in Luger's wrap-up tackle - "it was dislodged in contact, although I thought I exerted some downward pressure," said the captain, not terribly convincingly - but, while Woodward believed his case for the introduction of a "video official" had only been strengthened by the incident, he was in no rush to point the finger at the referee, Colin Hawke.

Should England go on to produce a carbon-copy of 1991 and reach a World Cup final off the back of a summer defeat in Australia, they will look back fondly on Saturday's events as superb preparation. "We know now that we can live with these guys," asserted Johnson. "We can take a game to them, control the ball against them, put tries past them." Provided they learn from them, too, all is not lost. All may yet be won.

AUSTRALIA: C Latham ; B Tune, D Herbert (all Queensland), N Grey (New South Wales), J Roff (ACT); T Horan (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT); G Panoho (Queensland), J Paul, P Noriega, D Giffin (all ACT), J Welborn (New South Wales), M Cockbain, T Kefu, D Wilson (all Queensland, capt). Replacements: D Crowley (Queensland) for Panoho, 27; T Strauss (New South Wales) for Kefu, 48; J Williams (ACT) for Cockbain, 79; M Burke (New South Wales) for Tune, 81.

ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), J Guscott, M Catt (both Bath), D Luger (Saracens); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (all Leicester, capt), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), M Corry, N Back (both Leicester). Replacements: M Dawson (Northampton) for Bracken, 52; P Greening (Sale) for Cockerill, 54; D Grewcock (Saracens) for Rodber, 61; V Ubogu for Garforth, 73; B Clarke for Corry, 73; P De Glanville (all Bath) for Catt, 79.

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand).

Australia 22 England 15

Tries: Tune 2, Roff Tries: Perry 2

Wilson Penalty: Wilkinson Conversion: Roff Conversion: Wilkinson

Half-time: 10-7 Attendance: 81,006