Rugby Union: Woodward primed to solve mystery

Rugby Union: England look to overturn a century of defeat Down Under in historic Test against Wallabies today
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AUSTRALIA HAVE been playing internationals against their old-country cousins for exactly 100 years, during which time they have given the poor little possums from north of the equator all manner of stick. Back in the 1970s, they took the direct approach by thumping the living daylights out of anyone with a European accent; now, as a century of Test activity draws to a close, they prefer to measure their bunches of fives in tries rather than knuckles.

Wallaby territory may be less dangerous to life and limb these days, but it appears to remain as impenetrable as ever to the European rugby mind. It is, then, quietly comforting that Clive Woodward should be better placed than any previous England top dog to unravel the mysteries and concoct a winning game plan for his red rose charges.

As a Grand Slam and Lions centre of considerable experience, he spent four years playing and coaching in New South Wales; in Manly, indeed, where his squad have spent the last six days preparing for this morning's one-off Centenary Test in front of a 90,000 audience at Stadium Australia. He retains a close friendship with Michael Hawker, one of the most influential of all Wallaby centres, and he tunes in easily to the local mind-set. In short, he understands how the boys in gold go about their business.

Whether that appreciation of all things Australian will tip the scales in England's favour is anyone's guess. This game, the first union international to be played at Sydney's new Olympic showpiece, is so finely balanced that few expect there to be more than seven or eight points in it when Colin Hawke, the excellent New Zealand referee, blows for no side.

The Wallabies do not like the look of the English pack one little bit and they will like it even less when Martin Johnson, beetle-browed and as tough as old boots, comes a-knocking on their dressing-room door for a ceremonial tossing of the coin. Intriguingly, Rod Macqueen, the crafty New South Walian who has made such a splendid fist of coaching his national team over the last couple of years, has yet to decide who will anchor the scrum from the outset. Dan Crowley has been named on the loose head, but no one will collapse in shock if the significantly bulkier Glenn Panoho starts the game.

There is some kidology and doublespeak flying around the England camp, too. Mike Catt, a key component of Woodward's fancy new back-line combination, was still struggling with a knee inflammation yesterday and did not train with his colleagues. "The medical advice is that he should be fit, so we'll leave the decision as late as possible," said the coach, not entirely convincingly. "If he fails to come through, Phil de Glanville will play.

"It has been frustrating not being able to run with Mike, but I'm fairly relaxed about Phil coming in. We might lose some kicking options but, on the other hand, we might end up a little stronger defensively. I'm quite happy either way."

In fact, Woodward believes both he and his side are nearing the end of their international education, which is just as well considering that their finals, in the shape of the World Cup, are looming large on the horizon. "My first game in charge was against Australia and my last major Test before the tournament that really matters is against the same opposition," he remarked.

"I've changed totally since November '97, both as a bloke and a coach; I had to learn on the run - my first four Tests all involved one of the big three from the southern hemisphere - and I suffered some setbacks. But the defeat against Wales at Wembley in April was, I think, the last big lesson. We came away from that a lot harder and a lot more pragmatic in terms of winning rugby matches. We're confident about this one."

If that confidence proves well-placed, England will go into the World Cup as one of four obvious favourites, even though the Lawrence Dallaglio affair continues to cast a black shadow over everything they do. Johnson has the ability to stoke the forward fires to molten temperature and with Neil Back primed to spend the entire 80 minutes disrupting Tim Horan's field of vision, there is no reason to underestimate the tourists' ability to control a large proportion of possession.

And yet. The Wallaby backs are major news, not just in terms of physique and explosive power, but in terms of the little grey cells up top; the more Joe Roff and Ben Tune see of the ball, the greater the likelihood will be of Australia maintaining their 100 per cent home record against the country they enjoy beating more than any other. You pays your Aussie dollars and you takes your choice.

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

ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), M Catt, J Guscott (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), N Back, M Corry (both Leicester). Replacements: N Beal (Northampton), P De Glanville (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton), B Clarke (Richmond), D Grewcock (Saracens), V Ubogu (Bath), P Greening (Sale).

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand).

TV: Sky Sports 1 (11.0am).