Black clouds spoil Randell's party mood

Twickenham celebration: Barbarians skipper enters the spirit but fears for his nation
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The Independent Online

Taine Randell gave the impression that he regards the captaincy of the New Zealand Barbarians as almost akin to being asked to stand on the bridge of the Titanic before she set sail on her maiden voyage.

Asked if his team had a chance against England at Twickenham next Saturday, Randell laughed. "What do you think? We're playing the world champions on their own patch in front of an appreciation society. Most of our squad haven't played since mid-October. Our chances can't be that good.''

In a match billed as the Zurich World Champions' Challenge, Clive Woodward's 22 includes 15 players who performed in Australia but not the XV. No Jonny Wilkinson, who is out for two to three weeks with a fractured bone in his shoulder. And no Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Ben Kay, Matt Dawson or Ben Cohen, who will instead be at Franklin's Gardens, where Northampton play Leicester in the Premiership a few hours before the England match. However, the entire World Cup squad will be at Twickenham on Saturday evening to parade the Webb Ellis trophy for anybody who hasn't yet seen it on a lap of honour. There will also be a presentation to Jason Leonard to commemorate his 113th cap and Wilkinson and Kyran Bracken will receive their silver 50th caps.

Charlie Hodgson and James Simpson-Daniel, who were unfortunate to miss the World Cup, the former through injury, the latter to Dan Luger, have an early chance to impress Woodward for the rather more serious matter of the Six Nations' Championship in the New Year.

"Although I couldn't pick a full strength team, as the game isn't a Test match under IRB rules, it's the most experienced of the sides I've selected to face a Barbarians team,'' Woodward said. "It contains players with nearly 500 caps between them and it's a game which gives all those taking part a fantastic opportunity to make a positive statement. I'm sure they will want to do everything they can to make my Six Nations' selections as difficult as possible.''

Whether the NZ Barbarians, a party that includes very few household names and are "coached'' by the former All Black Bryan Williams, will make life difficult for England is doubtful. They managed to beat England at Twickenham in 1996, when Carlos Spencer came on in the last 20 minutes to turn the game, but times have changed.

"England's success has already had an impact and will continue to do so,'' said Randell, the former All Blacks' captain, now with Saracens. "It's good for world rugby that a northern hemisphere country won the World Cup and I think it will rub off on the other home unions. It's been a long process for England, the culmination of four years of hard work.

"The margin in the final was minute but at international level experience counts for a lot and England have been playing so well for so long I wasn't surprised they won. They have really matured as a group and are at their peak. The challenge now is that everybody will be gunning for them even more than before and some of their big names are close to retirement. When that happens, they take a huge chunk out of the team and it's very hard to fill. It takes time. Australia and New Zealand went through a similar thing.''

Randell watched the World Cup on television: "The All Blacks weren't worth watching and they confirmed my worst fears. They have a great back line but physically their forwards couldn't compete. They selected a side that would have done in Super 12 but not in international rugby and the two are very different. They relied too much on Carlos Spencer and couldn't give him the ball.''

Randell has little sympathy for the coach John Mitchell and would like to see Graham Henry in charge with Steve Hansen as his assistant. "By his approach and the way he treated people, Mitchell alienated the players, the public and the sponsors. The All Blacks should be the people's team. He was tolerated as long as the team went well but he failed at the World Cup. He's now mounting a massive media campaign in New Zealand, which is strange considering the contempt he has shown the press. There is a lot of unhappiness and a feeling of waste. Players like Andrew Mehrtens and Christian Cullen could have offered so much, but they were sent packing.''

If Mitchell and his captain, Reuben Thorne, are sent packing, Randell could give them a few tips on life after the All Blacks. He and his coach John Hart failed to survive New Zealand's exit from the World Cup in 1999 when France ran all over them in the semi-final at Twickenham. "The guys are going through the same things we went through,'' he said.

When the Barbarians, deprived of their one world-class performer, the Fiji wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca, lose on Saturday, Randell will be exempt from criticism. Training? "I'm not sure when the team are arriving but we'll have a get-together at some stage,'' Randell said. "With Bryan as coach, it's not going to be too stressful. It will be interesting to see how the New Zealand C team goes against the best side in the world.''

Meanwhile, Woodward is urging the full house to wear white. "The more white we see will add to the celebration,'' he said. It will also add to the record profits announced last week by the RFU.