Caucaunibuca's withdrawal mars 'celebration'

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The Independent Online

The Rugby Football Union's first breathless attempt to print their own money on the back of their World Cup success struck a bum note yesterday.

Rupeni Caucaunibuca, the single most sensational performer during the tournament in Australia and one of the few good reasons why anyone should have paid top dollar to watch the hastily arranged match between England and the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday week, has pulled out of the "celebration" fixture for personal reasons. His decision means the visitors, already teetering on the brink of anonymity, have now achieved it.

Caucaunibuca, the Fijian wing who plays Super 12 rugby for the Auckland Blues, was the major draw in a Barbarians side otherwise made up of retired All Blacks, fringe internationals, provincial journeymen and the odd import from Australia, South Africa and Samoa. Taine Randell, the former New Zealand captain who now earns his corn in the Zurich Premiership with Saracens, will lead the side, and is a genuinely high-profile player. But most of those star-struck supporters who purchased the 72,500 tickets in three hours flat would not know Deacon Manu, Josh Blackie or Glen Jackson if they were sharing the same phone box.

Recently married, Caucaunibuca is busily organising a New Zealand work permit for his wife, Sovoketi, and wants to be in Auckland when she flies in from Fiji. "I have only just arrived back in New Zealand myself and I want to make sure everything is in place," he explained. "I would have loved to have played in the game, but I have to give priority to my wife and my long-term future."

Peter Sloane, who coaches Caucaunibuca, supported his player. "While the chance to play at Twickenham is a great opportunity, Rupeni is looking further down the track," he said. "By taking the time now to get settled in New Zealand, it will definitely allow him to focus on his role with the Blues. He's doing the right thing by himself, his team and his new wife."

Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, said that the match could have been sold out "10 times over". But many in English rugby believe it is more trouble than it is worth. Clive Woodward, the national coach, has agreed to selectorial restrictions - a maximum of three players from any one Premiership club - but is under pressure to pick the top-of-the-bill acts: Martin Johnson, Jason Robinson, Neil Back, Will Greenwood, Jason Leonard, Matthew Dawson and a chap by the name of Wilkinson. This hardly suits the likes of Leicester and Northampton, whose league derby clashes with the match, or Sale and Harlequins, who meet the previous evening.

The South African hierarchy have not given Nick Mallett, the former Springbok coach who was favoured by many to return to the post after the resignation of a humiliated Rudolf Straeuli, a place on their four-man shortlist for the job. The new front-runner is Andre Markgraaff, who coached the Boks through a 13-Test run in 1996 before finding himself at the centre of a scandal after a conversation in which he made racist comments was secretly recorded and broadcast.

Markgraaff, a highly gifted strategist, is being considered along with the successful Blue Bulls newcomer Heyneke Meyer, Damasani Mhani of Border, and Chester Williams, the World Cup-winning wing and national seven-a-side coach who remains one of the great heroes of black rugby in the republic. Brian van Rooyen, the new president of the South African Rugby Football Union, said a decision would be made towards the end of January.