Rugby Union: Woodward wary of Reds' hothouse

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The Independent Online
THE ISLAND idyll is almost over. After two weeks of sun, surf and beach volleyball - underpinned, it should be said, by a training regime sufficiently intense to leave Steve Hanley nursing a dislocated shoulder - England make the short water-taxi hop from South Stradbroke Island to the Queensland mainland tomorrow. It will be no picnic in barbecue country, that's for sure; Clive Woodward's side may already be thinking about the Centenary Test in Sydney in 12 days' time, but they must first negotiate a serious Super 12-style examination in Brisbane this weekend.

Despite losing 10 players to the Australian squad for Saturday's second Test with Ireland in Perth, the Queensland selectors have still managed to name an exciting state side for their simultaneous meeting with the English tourists at Ballymore. Four capped Wallabies - Damian Smith and Elton Flatley in the backs, Michael Foley and Andrew Heath up front - will be reinforced by a liberal sprinkling of outstanding young talent, headed by the 21-year-old lock forward Nathan Sharpe, whose uncanny impersonation of the incomparable John Eales inspired the Queensland Reds to a place in this season's Super 12 semi-finals.

Foley, capped 24 times at hooker, will lead the locals, who also field a former international sprinter in Rick Nalatu on the left wing. There would have been a fifth Wallaby but for Glen Panoho's promotion to the Test squad as front-row cover for Dan Crowley, who bruised his ribcage during last weekend's record victory over Ireland and remains a serious doubt for the re-match at the Subiaco Oval. Eales, meanwhile, continues his unhurried rehabilitation following shoulder surgery. The best pound- for-pound player in the game should be fit by mid-August and back in his pomp in time for this autumn's World Cup.

It is now down to Woodward to pick his way through the minefield section of a month-long trip Down Under. With memories of last summer's 76-0 humiliation in Brisbane still fresh in his mind and the daunting prospect of a six- figure audience awaiting him in Sydney, defeat this weekend is not exactly a preferred option. The coach would be well advised to pick the bulk of his Test side, not just because they will need a gallop before facing an extremely dynamic Wallaby side, but because Queensland look stronger than the second-string New South Wales outfit that put 39 points past the hapless Irish at the Sydney Football Stadium a week ago.

Besides, Woodward will not want to unveil new units against opposition of Wallaby quality. Lawrence Dallaglio's depressing absence demands a change at loose forward - Martin Corry of Leicester is the odds-on favourite to take over at No 8 - and there are likely to be tinkerings at half-back and in midfield following the traumatic, if wholly avoidable, Five Nations defeat by Wales in April. If, for example, the coach plans to pair Kyran Bracken and Jonny Wilkinson in Sydney on Saturday week, he will almost certainly want to give them a trial run in less demanding circumstances against Queensland.

Ireland, seriously perturbed by the hiding they suffered at Ballymore last weekend, felt a whole lot worse when they landed in Perth yesterday; the tail end of a typhoon ripped across central Australia on Sunday night, giving the tourists such a bumpy cross-country flight that they were forced to land in Melbourne instead. The only player who failed to voice his concern was Conor O'Shea, the London Irish captain. He was unable to talk at all, thanks to the fractured jaw he suffered at the hands of the Wallabies at Ballymore.

Rod Macqueen, the Australian coach, was rather more relaxed, although he took the precaution of pulling John Welborn, the long-serving New South Wales lock, into his squad as cover for Tom Bowman, whose hamstring condition is a cause for concern. Ben Tune, who suffered at the hands, or rather the feet, of Peter Clohessy on Saturday, will definitely miss the Test - Jason Little steps up - although the Queensland wing is likely to recover in time to face England.