Australian forwards must stifle danger of Spencer's All Black magic

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a country that has never knowingly talked itself down before, it has been incredible to eavesdrop on Australia in the run-up to this semi-final. The World and his Sheila have written off the Wallabies' chances here and this, in a strange way, may amount to the biggest obstacle facing New Zealand today.

For never before in the Rugby World Cup have the reigning world champions been playing at home yet been billed as such overwhelming outsiders. The pressure that had been piling on Australia's seemingly inadequate shoulders has lifted and been replaced by a feeling of "just go for it". And Wales in the past fortnight have proved just how dangerous a side without expectation can be.

But saying that, if that is all the All Blacks have to worry about then John Mitchell will be a happy man indeed. He is too shrewd a coach, however, to dismiss Australia so lightly and only too aware of the threat they will provide if their front five can finally get their act together in a tournament in which they have woefully underperformed.

Despite what his legion of critics here may say, the captain and scrum-half, George Gregan, is still a big-match player and so, too, is the man outside him, Stephen Larkham. It is in their back three, however, where Australia's main threat lies. The league converts of Lote Tuqiri and Wendell Sailor on the wings and Mat Rogers at full-back have yet to click, but if they do... Even the New Zealand flyers might struggle to live with their power.

But all this, of course, is dependent on the Australian forwards doing the business and that will probably be beyond them. I have said before that I believe New Zealand and their dancing backline need only 40 per cent of possession to win any game and after last week it is hard to see them not winning at least that at the Telstra Stadium.

The much-respected South Africa pack came a poor second to New Zealand in Melbourne, while Australia were given the runaround in the first half against Scotland. The portents, therefore, are anything but rosy. And when you look behind the magnificent Chris Jack at lock, not to mention the equally magnificent Jerry Collins at No 8, the task gets more daunting still for Australia's coach, Eddie Jones.

Justin Marshall is in the form of his life at scrum-half, while Carlos Spencer is in the form of anyone's life at No 10. The Auckland magician has revealed his full bag of tricks at this tournament and Mitchell has rightly sought to remove all the constrictions he can to draw out Spencer's vast repertoire. So, as his star man faltered with his goalkicking, the tee was passed around until it eventually fell at Leon MacDonald's feet. At first the outside-centre fared well, kicking 14 out of 14 against Tonga, but then the flaws started to appear against Wales, before they intensified with three missed kicks against South Africa. Unsurprisingly, this has led many to spot a chink in the All Black armour, but not one, I suspect, that will cost this try-happiest of sides too dearly.

You may think that to suggest that penalties and conversions will not be all-important in a World Cup semi-final is weird in the extreme but then everything about this fixture is weird and flies in the face of what we've become used to. Who would have thought that an Australian side would ever need to use brawn to stifle the speed of the New Zealand backs? And who would have ever thought that home advantage would apparently count for so little?

It also baffles belief to say that Jonny Wilkinson could ever be a weak link but I am sure the reason the England coach, Clive Woodward, chose Mike Catt to start at inside-centre for tomorrow's tussle with France was all to do with his fly-half's erratic form and little to do with Mike Tindall's effectiveness.

By siding with Catt's com-posure over Tindall's battering-ram incision, Woodward has even sacrificed his main line-breaker just when he will probably need him most. The French defence has looked granite-like and, I fancy, it will take more than Catt's speed of foot and thought to bring it to heel.

But what else was Woodward to do? Wilkinson's lack of confidence is the exact opposite of the brazen cockiness of his opposite number, young Frédéric Michalak, and in many ways they reflect the contrasting moods of the camps perfectly.

England, however, must put any such indecision to one side because they have the ammunition if only Martin Johnson and his once dominant front five can rediscover the form that made them the world No 1. Richard Hill's well timed comeback on the openside may prove just what the doctor ordered and will probably need to be if the awesome French back row are to be neutralised.

Whatever happens in these semi-finals, there are bound to be fireworks and, in all truth, anything can happen. Put a gun to my head and I'll tell you New Zealand and England will be the last left standing tomorrow. But put a betting slip in my hand? New Zealand, for sure, but the other semi-final is just too close to bet on.