Abbott must tackle French and nerves to win ticket for Australia

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The Independent Online

Stuart Abbott might easily have been preparing for the forthcoming World Cup as part of the Springbok squad - a fact that should persuade him to thank his lucky stars, given the controversies over on-field violence and alleged off-field racism that have left South African rugby at its lowest ebb since the final desultory years of isolation, and the pathetic money-grabbing rebel tours that symbolised the moral bankruptcy of the green-and-gold game. Instead, he is 80 minutes away from flying to Australia with England, and the nerve-endings are beginning to fray.

"I was nervous before the game against Wales a couple of weekends ago, but with so much riding on this match, I'll be more anxious still," said the Wasps centre after being named in England's starting team for the final warm-up international against France at Twickenham on Saturday evening.

Anxiety is very much the way of it right now, not only for Abbott but for Dan Luger, the Perpignan-bound wing, and Martin Corry, the Leicester loose forward. If 12 of the side are World Cup certainties, these three still have work to do.

Abbott is one of only four specialist centres left in the equation, but there are strong rumours that only three will travel. If that turns out to be the case - Clive Woodward makes his final five-man cut on Sunday - the former Stellenbosch University student will be in direct competition with Ollie Smith, the outstanding young Leicester prospect. As Smith is not involved this weekend, Abbott is in a make or break position.

He will face another exiled South African, the imposing Brian Liebenberg of Stade Français, and should he show his countryman a clean pair of heels while proving his mettle in defence, Woodward will find it difficult to ignore his claims.

Quite what Rudi Straeuli, the beleaguered Springbok coach, thinks of this midfield exodus is anyone's guess. He approached Abbott back in May, suggesting that an early return to the Cape would be rewarded with a Springbok jersey. Abbott knocked him back - "I have dedicated myself 100 per cent to professional rugby with Wasps and England," said the 25-year-old, who qualifies through his Manchester-born mother - and left Straeuli to cobble together a make-do-and-mend midfield bereft of natural attackers.

Woodward is picking from strength in almost every department - midfield is the exception - and confessed yesterday that the final selection was as troublesome as he had feared. "The positional balance of the 30 is not cast in stone," he said. "I have an ideal model in mind, but models can be broken up by the form of individuals."

Corry, a Test Lion in 2001 but never one of Woodward's automatic choices, is one of those muddying the waters. His outstanding performance against the French last Saturday has pushed him into the forefront of the coach's thoughts.

Corry turns out this weekend because both Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley are suffering from minor aches and strains, but even had both rival No 8s been fit, he would have played some role on account of his efforts in Marseille.

Mike Tindall is also injured, having damaged his heel at the weekend; Phil Vickery, Mark Regan, Alex King and James Simpson-Daniel were not considered because of similarly niggling complaints. Woodward would have loved to have fielded a full Test team against Bernard Laporte's shadow XV, but must settle for approximately three-quarters of it.

Much attention will be focused on the set-pieces of line-out and scrum, where England found themselves badly compromised last time out. "The more I watch the tape of the defeat in Marseille, the more frustrated I feel," admitted Andy Robinson, the assistant coach, who does not expect his forward packs to concede possession in the air and front-foot advantage on the ground. "The whole tempo was poor. It sometimes took us 10 seconds to get the ball into the scrum, and that simply isn't England. The French messed us around, and while we picked up free kicks and penalties, the whole efficiency of our game depends on playing the ball quickly."

If only the Springboks could claim line-outs and scrums as their principal worries going into next month's competition. Edwin King, the retired judge who chaired the commission of inquiry into the Hansie Cronje cricket match-fixing scandal three years ago, has been asked by the South African Rugby Football Union to head an independent investigation into allegations that the Afrikaans lock Geo Cronje (no relation) acted in a racist fashion at a World Cup training camp in Pretoria last week by refusing to share a room with the black second-rower Quinton Davids.

* Ireland backs Denis Hickie and Kevin Maggs will both have fitness tests today ahead of Saturday's Murrayfield game with Scotland. Both have groin injuries and Ulster's Tyrone Howe and Munster's Rob Henderson were yesterday called into the squad as cover.

ENGLAND TEAM (v France, Twickenham, Saturday, 6pm)

J Robinson (Sale); D Luger (Perpignan), S Abbott (Wasps), W Greenwood (Harlequins), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); T Woodman (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester).

Replacements: D West (Leicester), J Leonard (Harlequins), S Shaw (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Dawson (Northampton), P Grayson (Northampton), I Balshaw (Bath).

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