Brian Viner: Sheridan's power catches Wallaby props on the hop

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In nigh on 100 years of rugby union matches between England and Australia, the old country has only twice before nailed more than 25 points to the board, in 1988 and 2002. As for the double of England's rugby players beating Australia in the same year as the country's cricketers have won the Ashes, that has never happened before. Nor have England ever beaten Australia at rugby and Argentina at football on the same afternoon. Add six Pakistani wickets to Saturday's impressive haul of goals and points and it's rather surprising that Strictly Come Dancing wasn't hastily pulled out of the television schedules to make room for a Prime Ministerial address. Tony Blair likes to get in on the act when he sniffs sporting triumphalism in the air.

There was, however, no triumphalism swirling around the Good Health Bar in the bowels of Twickenham stadium, where Andy Robinson took his seat for Saturday's post-match press conference. The England coach knew that the 10-point margin of victory did not adequately reflect his team's huge territorial advantage, and that although there was a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between the performances of the packs, there was nothing much to choose between the two sets of backs, despite a reminder of Ben Cohen's World Cup pedigree on one wing and some excellent work by Mark Cueto on the other. He also knew that beating an Australian team that has now lost seven matches on the bounce does not call for a merry jig, especially as he now has an altogether different dance on his mind. The haka comes to Twickenham next Saturday.

Still, it's always good to beat Australia, and an unprecedented Oval-oval ball double is worth crowing about. Not that it interests Robinson. Only once did he refer to an absence of precedent, and that was in connection with his loose-head prop, Andrew Sheridan, who had never started a game for England before yet whose preternatural strength in the scrum, with a modicum of help from a few sizeable chaps alongside and behind him, left the Wallaby pack wondering what had hit them, and the prop Matt Dunning facing an MRI scan, having been carried from the field, wearing a neck brace.

Dunning's injury was the cloud over what was otherwise the brightest possible of debuts by Sheridan, who was monumental in the loose as well. The Sale Shark, who has rather more in common with a killer whale, stands 6ft 5ins in his stockinged feet and tips any scales strong enough to accommodate him at a flicker of the needle less than 20st. When he lifts weights, apparently, strong men gather to watch. He has been known to bench-press 230kgs - 35st, give or take - which won't surprise poor Dunning in the slightest. Sheridan has been a lock and even a flanker but the front row is surely where he belongs. Indeed, with the age of Jason Leonard now consigned to glorious history, it could be that England are about to embark on the age of Sheridan. It has a nice literary ring to it, too.

"He had a top game," said Robinson. "He hit the ground running right from the start. Phil, would you like to make any comments?" He turned to his scrummaging coach, Phil Keith-Roach, whom Sheridan credits with teaching him the essentials of loose-head play. "No," said Keith-Roach, a man of few words, none of them superfluous. There was widespread chortling, but in truth no further comment was needed. Sheridan's mighty performance, and the reduction of the Australian pack to the same sort of rubble as the old South Stand, had spoken volumes already.

In the meantime, the mood of the crowd drifting into the Middlesex twilight was of relief rather than euphoria. Beforehand, there had been palpable apprehension in the balmy late-autumnal air. England had to win, and win big. On Rugby Road a small posse of young women in black catsuits tried forlornly to drum up interest in Spearmint Rhino lap-dancing clubs, but the only stripping England fans wanted to see was that of Australian dignity and ambition.

Both, however, were still very much intact by the final whistle. The Wallaby coach Eddie Jones and his scrum-half and captain George Gregan, while both looking as if they would rather be on a bus tour of the seventh circle of hell than facing the media, talked spiritedly about keeping their chins up and looking forward to getting to Dublin for next weekend's game against the Irish.

"We will get some good out of this eventually," said Jones. "If you take the scrum out of the equation then we played very well." Unfortunately for him, the scrum was the equation.

How might England beat the fearsome All Blacks next week, he was then asked. Not unreasonably, he declared that he couldn't care less.

Comments