It is stretching credulity to imagine that two camouflaged cameramen recording a secret training session might tilt the balance towards England when they take on Tana Umaga's stunning All Blacks at Twickenham this weekend. On the evidence of the past week and a half, 15 Andrew Sheridans armed with flame-throwers would be a more realistic option - so the pleas of innocence from the world champions' camp had a distinct ring of truth to them.
Not that the denials made the New Zealand hierarchy any less suspicious. Asked whether he felt England, whom he clearly felt were to blame, were being flattering in their subterfuge, the All Blacks head coach, Graham Henry, was positively sulphuric in his response. "It's not the word I would use," he replied. "I'd use the word 'paranoid' instead. England must be taking this game pretty seriously if they're hiding cameramen behind the fence. I think it's unnecessary. It's over the top."
The "not us, honest" cries could be heard on the breeze from the general direction of the England base in Surrey almost before Henry had finished his sentence. "There was absolutely no involvement on our part," insisted a Rugby Football Union spokesman. But the tourists were not best pleased, whoever the culprits may have been.
When approached during the closed session at the Grasshoppers club in Osterley, the cloak-and-dagger merchants hared off into the distance, stopping only to say they were representatives of the Reuters news agency. "If that was the case," smirked Henry's assistant, Wayne Smith, "why didn't they hang around for an interview?" A short while later, Reuters issued a denial of their own.
This is not the first time spying allegations have distorted the build-up to a Test between England and one of the southern hemisphere superpowers, although the complaints generally came from the Red Rose army. Sir Clive Woodward was particularly exercised by the subject during his long tenure at Twickenham; indeed, he made it his business to ensure that the England dressing room was swept for bugging devices.
The All Blacks need not go that far. Now Jonah Lomu has arrived in these islands, they can wedge him in the doorway as a surefire means of stopping intruders.
Lomu's successors on the All Black wings gave Henry and his fellow coaches an unusual degree of selectorial trouble as the starting line-up was finalised for this third leg of their Grand Slam tour.
Rico Gear, the fine Nelson Bays player who put a hat-trick of tries past Wales in the opening match of the trip, and Joe Rokocoko, the most lethal finisher in world rugby when his radar is fully operational, were the two to miss out. Rokocoko's cousin, Sitiveni Sivivatu, and Doug Howlett, now on the brink of a half-century of caps, will wear the silver fern this weekend.
By choosing Aaron Mauger ahead of the remarkable Conrad Smith in midfield, the coaches have given Umaga the opportunity to play in his optimum position of outside centre. It cannot have been an easy call. Nor can the one that gave Byron Kelleher precedence over Piri Weepu at scrum-half, although Henry and company were spared one last migraine-sized headache when their most experienced hooker, Anton Oliver, pulled out with a calf injury. Keven Mealamu, no mean act himself, will be in the middle of the front row.
"I'd say that was the toughest selection meeting I've had during my time with the All Blacks," Henry admitted. "Some players have gone really well on this tour, only to miss out. Gear is certainly one of those, but Howlett is playing the best rugby of his life in my opinion. He is really switched on to all the requirements and is performing right on the edge of his ability. Rico is only an inch behind, but I can't pick 16 or 17 people. Just 15."
A few miles to the south-west, the England captain Martin Corry embraced his side's underdog status ahead of Saturday's Test like a shipwrecked man clinging to a lifebelt. "This is the ultimate test," said the Leicester No 8.
"They are the best side in the world at the moment and it's going to be incredibly tough, and while I certainly believe we have the side and the nous to beat them, it will mean all of us playing the best game we've ever played in an England shirt. We are going in as underdogs, but that's fine by us. We know where we are."
England will confirm their side this afternoon, once Charlie Hodgson, their injured outside-half, is tested on his groin problem. Hodgson is expected to pass muster. If he fails, Olly Barkley of Bath will probably start in the pivot position.Reuse content