Rugby Union:The primed 'Pommie thrashers'

Paul Trow examines the many strengths and major weakness of Australia
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The Independent Online
ON the face of it, Rod MacQueen, the Australian coach, does not have too much in common with Clive Woodward, his beleaguered English counterpart.

First, MacQueen has the luxury of a full-strength squad, give or take a couple of minor injury niggles, for Saturday's Cook Cup international in Brisbane, while Woodward has been forced to rely almost entirely on a cast of youthful understudies.

Second, the Australians are expected to be somewhere near their peak after three months of battle-honing Super 12 rugby. The Tri-Nations series against New Zealand and South Africa beckons and Australia, underachievers so far in this annual southern-hemisphere tournament, are sharpening their claws, and tongues, in anticipation.

England, by contrast, have arrived Down Under shorn of nearly every first- choice player, and more in need of a summer's rest than a month of confrontations with the world's best.

Ironically, though, the derision heaped upon Woodward and his makeshift party by the two senior Australian Rugby Union officials - the chairman Dick McGruther, who has predicted a "Pommie bashing" on Saturday, and the chief executive John O'Neill - might be just what England need. The war of words has clearly been declared to stimulate public interest (only half of the 40,000 tickets have been sold so far), but could also have the effect of galvanising Woodward's men with a common purpose.

McGruther and O'Neill's bluster disguises the suspicion that this may be a far from vintage Australian side despite the presence of several world-class individuals. However, at full-back the old adversaries both appear to have an embarrassment of riches. England have recalled Tim Stimpson, a Lion 12 months ago, after a season of near inactivity at Newcastle by moving last season's incumbent, Matt Perry, who made his debut in November's 15-15 draw with Australia at Twickenham, to centre.

Two of MacQueen's more precious assets behind the scrum are also natural full-backs - the vastly experienced Matt Burke, who returns to the side after a prolonged period on the sidelines with a groin injury, and Steve Larkham, who has kept the throne warm in his absence.

Now MacQueen proposes to switch 24-year-old Larkham, whose displays at full-back for ACT Brumbies earned him recognition as Australia's best player in this season's Super 12, to fly-half. Since the retirement of Michael Lynagh three years ago, Australia have struggled to find a worthy successor to the world-record Test points scorer, flirting with the varying talents of Matt Bowen, Pat Howard, Tim Horan, David Knox and Elton Flatley without making much progress.

Now it is Larkham's turn to occupy the hot seat, and it seems he is not relishing the prospect on his 13th Test appearance. Aware of the haste with which his immediate predecessors were discarded or, in Horan's case, returned to his original position at centre, Larkham has sought an assurance from MacQueen that he will be retained for the two internationals against Scotland.

"There are doubts in my mind," admitted Larkham last week. "We're going to have to see how training goes but hopefully if things don't work out in the Test with England I'll get a chance against Scotland. If I knuckle down there's a chance for me to stay there permanently."

Larkham the fly-half already has his knockers amongst his native Ockers. Leading the chorus of dissent, predictably, is the former wing David Campese. "Campo said I couldn't defend so we're going to be working on that," added Larkham, who as a proven full-back ought to know something about stopping the opposition. "But the critics have been good. They've made me wake up to it and acknowledge that it's not going to be that easy."

"Steve's the sort of player that adjusts well and we're not going to be changing his running game too much," said MacQueen. "We're looking at a long-term solution at stand-off. There's a bit of a risk but there's a risk whoever we put there."

A risk or two may also have been taken with the pack. In the back row, Danny Wilson needs to prove his recovery from hamstring and groin injuries while Touai Kefu will start for the first time at the expense of the 1991 World Cup hero Willie Ofahengaue. In the second row, Tom Bowman makes his debut and could find himself packing down with another inexperienced lock, John Welborn, who has been called up as cover for the captain John Eales. A fortnight ago, Eales missed Queensland's final Super 12 match against ACT with a knee injury, but his present problem is wrist tendinitis.

Meanwhile, another World Cup winner, Phil Kearns, fit again after 18 months out with a knee injury, returns at hooker for his 50th cap. "It feels like a first cap, I'm absolutely thrilled," said Kearns, who none the less knows he cannot take any further Tests for granted with the hungry Jeremy Paul, just 21, on the bench.

But with Burke, Horan, the powerhouse wings, Ben Tune and Joe Roff (subject to recovery from a torn hamstring), and the quicksilver scrum-half, George Gregan, on parade, there should be enough options behind the scrum to spare Larkham's blushes and ensure that Australia's proud record of never losing at home to England remains intact.