Australia's courting of referee causes England concern

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The Independent Online

Nathan Sharpe, by common consent the form Wallaby of the season to date, has been given a 90 per cent chance of taking the field for tomorrow's Cook Cup Test against England at the Docklands Stadium here following a scan on his troublesome knee ligaments.

Meanwhile, the referee, David McHugh, of Ireland, has been listed to attend a swanky match-eve function at the Savoy Ballroom as a guest of the Australian Rugby Union's chief sponsors. Clive Woodward, the England coach, is not entirely sure which development worries him the most.

McHugh may be among the two or three outstanding officials in the international game - he is not exactly overwhelmed by competition, if truth be told - but his reputation as a sensible, even-handed interpreter of rugby's spectacularly convoluted rules and regulations has not prevented the Australians in general, and Eddie Jones in particular, openly bending his ear about what they consider dubious English tactics at the tackle area. "We want David to referee according to the book," said Jones, the Wallaby coach, yesterday. "If he does, and we are allowed some quick ball, we'll be happy. If he doesn't, it could be an ugly affair."

England are well acquainted with this naked form of Wallaby spin-doctoring, and could have predicted before leaving Heathrow that Jones would attempt to focus McHugh's attention on areas of Australian concern.

However, the tourists did not imagine that the Irishman would attend an ARU fund-raising bash less than 36 hours before the game and, what is more, agree to be interviewed during the function. Jones might suspect Woodward and his management team of rampant paranoia, but there was very definitely a feeling of discomfort in the visitors' camp yesterday.

Publicly, Jones has gone out of his way to praise England. "I think some of the things said about them on this trip amount to uneducated comment," he said. "When you take on New Zealand in Wellington - one of the most difficult places in the world to play rugby - and beat them, you have a right to feel pretty happy with life. The weather conditions weren't fantastic, England played smart rugby and there is no value at all in underestimating smart rugby. If they win this Test too - something they haven't done in Australia - it will be a massive achievement for them. It will reinforce the view that their World Cup preparation is moving along the right lines."

There was one little barb, though, as there always tends to be in this neck of the woods. Asked whether the older English forwards - thirtysomethings like Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Jason Leonard and Graham Rowntree - might struggle to last a World Cup played in extreme heat, Jones replied: "Aerobic fitness and endurance will be a primary consideration. If we get a tournament where the laws are enforced and teams are allowed quick ball" - that old chestnut again - "the demands on fitness will be high."

Then a pause, and a knowing grin. "Which doesn't mean to say you can't cope at 34," he added, mischievously.

Unlike Woodward, who has probably identified all but five of his 30-man World Cup party, Jones believes his side to be in a state of flux. "I reckon we have 39 or 40 players chasing places, a situation I'm comfortable with at this stage of the process," he said.

A number of those charged with defending Australia's home-territory honour against England tomorrow - not least the midfield trio of Nathan Grey, Steve Kefu and Morgan Turinui - need to strike while the iron is hot, or rather, while more celebrated rivals like Steve Larkham, Daniel Herbert and Stirling Mortlock are out cold with injury.

While Jones suggested that neither side would "show their complete deck of cards" in this match, and asserted that as the game was "one step along the road, we won't be doing handstands if we win", he will be a relieved man if Sharpe takes the field as expected.

The 6ft 7in lock from Wagga Wagga - yes, really - strained his knee ligaments during training on Wednesday and was scanned for serious damage yesterday. The scan drew a welcome blank. Assuming he suffers no further problems in today's final team run, Sharpe will take his place in the second row alongside the experienced David Giffin, leaving Daniel Vickerman to kick his heels among the replacements and Owen Finegan, a try-scorer in the last World Cup final, to continue his recovery from shoulder surgery rather than move onto the bench a couple of weeks ahead of schedule.