Australia's decision to close roof may nullify threat of Wilkinson's boot

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The Independent Online

It used to be called the Colonial Stadium, but these days, no one in Australia seems entirely sure whether the 52,000-seater venue for this weekend's potentially historic meeting between Australia and England has reverted to its original name - the Docklands Stadium - or been formally re-christened the Telstra Dome. This much is certain, though: the roof will be closed, irrespective of the conditions, and it will be shut throughout this autumn's World Cup, too. More's the pity.

As the All Black-England Test in Wellington should have reminded the people who make these decisions, rugby is an outdoor sport. The weather in New Zealand's capital city, wet and windy in the extreme, imposed enormous demands on the two outside-halves, Jonny Wilkinson and Carlos Spencer. Wilkinson struggled with his handling and tactical kicking, but his goal-kicking was of master-class quality. Spencer could not match his rival in the marksmanship stakes, missing four shots at goal, and as a result, his side finished second. It was the very essence of sporting combat - an unforgiving examination of nerve and technical skill - and it was utterly compelling.

This Saturday, the advantages England derive from Wilkinson's brilliance may be rendered null and void. The Wallabies have been struggling with goal-kicking of late, and their problems are now more acute as a result of the one-match ban imposed on Elton Flatley, the Queensland stand-off, for missing a rehab session in Sydney at the weekend. In the open air of a Victorian winter, their as yet unnamed replacement kicker might have been sorely tested. Indoors, he will find life much easier.

"There are arguments both ways," said Kyran Bracken, the England scrum-half, yesterday, "and I'm not sure where I stand on the issue. When you get a game like last week's against the Maori in New Plymouth, which was played in terrible conditions, you do wonder about the spectacle aspect. There again, Jonny kicked fantastically well against the All Blacks in weather that tested him to the limit. I can understand the reservations."

Bracken, an understudy to Matt Dawson at the start of the tour, has every chance of holding his place as England bid for their first Test win in Australia in 11 attempts stretching back to 1963. Dawson, ruled out of the Wellington match by a thigh problem, is fit again, but Bracken's superior passing was priceless against the All Blacks. A confidence player, he is now on one of his occasional highs. Any move by Clive Woodward, the England coach, to reinstate Dawson would send the Saracen's spirits plummeting.

England have lost the services of the Wasps lock Simon Shaw, who was one of the major contributors to the victory over the Maori, but he picked up a neck injury in that game that has failed to respond to treatment. However, the real engine-room problems belong to the Wallabies, who have concerns over Nathan Sharpe, the in-form Queensland lock seen by many as the long-term successor to the great John Eales. Sharpe is feeling the effects of the weekend victory over Wales in Sydney and did not train yesterday.

Eddie Jones, the Wallaby coach, will not confirm his side until tomorrow, by which time he will be more clued-up on Sharpe's fitness and more settled on his plans for the outside-half berth. Nathan Grey, a career centre, is performing the role in training, and Jones' decision not to draft in Julian Huxley, who impressed in Queensland's recent win over Samoa, suggests he has made his decision. "We see Huxley as a full-back rather than an outside-half," Jones said. "Nathan played 10 in the second half of the game against England at Twickenham in 2001, and went pretty well. It's an exciting situation, I think. As we're not sure how it's going to go, we can take it that England aren't sure either."

A noted professor of the pre-match wind-up, Jones was in a disappointingly diplomatic frame of mind yesterday. Indeed, he sounded like a coach who knew his side, riddled with injuries, might struggle to cope with an England team on a 12-match winning streak. "This is the best-prepared England side ever," he gushed. "We are seeing the result of six years of consistent work. They have developed a terrific set of principles - they have an outstanding scrum, play smart tactics and give away very little in the way of free ball.

"The northern hemisphere countries have an advantage because of the confrontational game they play at club level. Week in and week out, they are involved in real battles. The tight game does not come naturally to Australians. We still have to work very hard on that part of our act."

It was almost as if Jones was rehearsing his excuses in advance of a defeat he considers inevitable. Woodward, who knows his opposite number of old, will not believe a word of it.

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