Rugby World Cup: A necessary revolution of pace and power

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I'LL PUT my cards on the table straight away and say that the particular circumstances of this World Cup - that it is being played at the beginning of the northern hemisphere season and will be fought out in European conditions - load the dice in England's favour. Clive Woodward has at his disposal a resourceful and well-equipped squad, players who have taken advantage of the revolution in sports science in this country and are now both physically and mentally equipped not only to survive what is certain to be a tournament of extreme intensity, but to thrive on it.

In fact, I'll go further: in my judgement, England have the most formidable back-five forwards in the competition, players who excel in the heavy- duty areas of scrum, ruck and maul but are also footballers of the new era. They will provide a precious edge in a tight tournament that will probably be won by a side showing authority at the set-piece, strength and organisation in defence and an ability to kick the important goals. For a variety of reasons, I believe the gaps that undeniably existed between the best European sides and the big three nations from south of the equator have narrowed significantly. So significantly, indeed, that we have the nearest thing to a level playing field in the short history of the World Cup.

One of the big lessons we learned in South Africa in 1995 was that there was a power differential working against us; a differential that had to be addressed and dealt with before we could hope to progress in world terms. We were taking the best advice available to us at the time, but as the Premiership football clubs discovered when foreign coaches came into the domestic game with new and advanced approaches to training and preparation, we had fallen off the pace. New Zealand, and, in particular, Jonah Lomu, were a revelation when we played them in Cape Town; they played with a degree of power above and beyond anything we had ever experienced. Power alone can defeat you unless you are properly fit and organised. That afternoon, it took the England players until half-time to understand what was happening to them.

Now, four years on, we have the science right. It needed a couple of years for the necessary improvements to come through the system, but we have increasingly added the explosive power game to the other basic requirements needed by world-class players: speed and stamina, by which I mean the ability to run for ever. Some of the England players' physiques have developed quite radically over the past 18 months and that is an encouraging sign, because every coach in the tournament is going to look at his opposition in an exceptionally unforgiving, player-specific light.

The first question he will consider will be the tackle question, not simply in terms of who can and cannot tackle, but in terms of which players will still be tackling after three big hits, or five, or seven, or a dozen. He will identify the weak tacklers and set his power runners on them, maybe from the very outset, maybe at a particular juncture much later in the game.

This is why I wholly understand Graham Henry's decision to omit Arwel Thomas, a very gifted footballer, from the Welsh squad. The outside-half has to get through an awful lot of tackling in the modern game and while you can cover up your No 10's physical shortcomings to some degree, he cannot be protected indefinitely. Hence the heavy investment in Neil Jenkins, which is beginning to pay such dividends.

Talking of No 10s, I think this will be among the most intriguing aspects of the next few weeks. Look around the world and identify the stand-offs who can run a game under real pressure. You will not come up with many names. We know Andrew Mehrtens of New Zealand can do the job; he possesses all the skills, all the virtues. Now, who else? Steve Larkham of Australia? Still unproven, in my opinion. Thomas Castaignede of France? A very exciting and inventive ball-player, I agree, but I suspect he would be better at centre than at outside-half. As for the South Africans... well, they have real problems at 10.

It may be that Jonny Wilkinson of England emerges as a Mehrtens-like force in this most crucial of positions. He is young and relatively inexperienced, but he can do the lot - kick, tackle, distribute, organise. Is his all- round game ready for the test ahead? England must hope that it is. The immediate post-Rob Andrew era was a serious selectorial challenge for England and we invested a tremendous amount of time and effort in both Mike Catt and Paul Grayson, both of whom slowly became accomplished in the playmaking role.

But the way Wilkinson has been pulled through so quickly and intelligently could be a decisive factor. With Grayson and Catt in support, England seem better equipped at stand-off than anyone, with the single exception of the All Blacks.

But then, the All Blacks are not without their downside. I am not at all convinced that the newcomers to the New Zealand line-up have been bedded in as firmly as John Hart, their coach, would like us to believe. It seems to me that John gambled on the likes of Frank Bunce, Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Olo Brown and Zinzan Brooke making this tournament and it also seems, at least from this distance, that he overplayed his hand.

Retirements, allied to five successive defeats last season, forced him into personnel changes. Is this now a settled side? The heavy defeat in Sydney recently exposed potential frailties.

Are we quite sure that recent additions, such as like Norm Maxwell, the second row, and Daryl Gibson, the centre, can hold it together through a full 80 minutes of World Cup rugby, with all its unique pressures? Some reports suggest that the All Blacks may play Christian Cullen in midfield, which would certainly be an exciting gamble. Cullen is No 1 when he has space, but you rarely find space in the centre, which is a very specialist position and not one you slip into overnight. The England-New Zealand game on Saturday week will be crucial to the subsequent shape of the tournament and I see no reason why, with Twickenham advantage, Clive's side should not prevail.

Nothing in this tournament is cut and dried; professionalism on the grand scale is proving to be a leveller at the top end. There will be no great surprise packages, no new dimensions of rugby of the kind we saw from New Zealand four years ago. This World Cup will be down to preparation, fitness and fine-tuning, which is why I believe England, with their wide range of options and their logistical advantages, have as good a chance as anyone.