England must banish the fear of failure

Rugby World Cup: Talent of France will not easily brush aside Johnson's believers while Australia might also dare to upset the formbook
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The Independent Online

Every little harbour breeze is saying France and New Zealand and now that the sun has returned to a great cloudless blue sky there is near unanimity that it is shining upon Frédéric Michalak and Carlos Spencer.

Michalak, the diamond-eared, street-smart kid from Toulouse, will - so it goes - needle and torment the former English behemoth here in the Telstra Stadium tomorrow. And today, Spencer, the brooding Maori, will have one of those games against the dishevelled Wallabies when he seems to be running with volcanic dust on his boots and heavenly adhesive on his hands.

It is a given, a lock, a formality: England peaked too soon for this fifth Rugby World Cup, and the Australians barely struck base camp. But is it really as cut and dried as the wad of salted bully beef that goes into a swagman's picnic hamper? Are England indeed hopelessly overcooked and Australia irredeemably half-baked?

The consensus of the rugby cognoscenti is a thunderous "yes". The French have come to the boil quite beautifully - the All Blacks have so many of their best qualities back, dazzling individual talent and much of the old method and structure, and what can England and Australia say?

Surely not that they will simply wake up with the inspiration and the understanding which has been so elusive through a tournament which, when you look at the strain on some English faces, and notably that of Jonny Wilkinson, seems to have stretched their resolve to breaking point?

In fact England's coach, Clive Woodward, is saying something quite different. He is saying that, yes, there have been times when the French have been luminous in the imagination and the coolness of their play, and he wouldn't begin to say such things about his own team. But what he does assert is that he is not in charge of a team who have forgotten how to play - or, rather more crucially, how to fight.

Woodward hasn't quite said "some chicken, some neck" as Churchill did when it was suggested the island nation was about to have its life squeezed away. But that was the broad inference to be taken the other day when he was gently baited by a French writer about the glowing coherence of France. "They have done brilliantly," Woodward said. "They are stand-out favourites, but you must remember: they haven't played England yet."

They haven't felt the hot breath of an ageing but, when it is sparking, hard and ruthless team which quite recently was beating the world, knocking down the big guns as though they were a row of skittles, and who know now that they may well be just one defeat away from being sent off down the high road of history in a cloud of dust.

That is what Woodward has been saying to his team for the last week since the Welsh, running like young stags, compounded English concerns that came with the loss of conviction against the Springboks and Samoa.

That is how all the grand strategy, that was supposed to carry England's march to their first World Cup victory, has come down to something as elemental as the approach to a bar-room fist fight.

Woodward has been saying that they are not Wales, chasing a sunbeam, or Ireland - so comprehensively crushed at Lansdowne Road - harassing the neurotic Wallabies before folding utterly to France. They are England, a team that have covered new ground, who for more than a year set a blistering standard for every rival in the world.

Woodward is telling England that they have so much to protect. So much solid achievement, so much credit in the bank - and in the psyche of these high-flying French.

Yes, the French have the sparkle of Michalak and the wonderful acumen and élan of their captain and scrum-half, Fabien Galthié; they have a tough front five and the back row of Serge Betsen, Olivier Magne and Imanol Harinordoquy, who on their best days have the sheen and the hauteur of Napoleon's finest cavalry.

But that plumage was trodden into the ground of Waterloo, and Woodward is also saying that all the French have achieved here in the last few weeks has to be balanced by the fact that their most formidable victims have been Scotland and Ireland. And why would that terrify the team of Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio and, hopefully, a properly re-firing Richard Hill? In April they did, after all, make matchwood of the Irish, after rolling over France. They also, with chilling bloody-mindedness, refused to let the president of Ireland pass along her red carpet.

Woodward needs to turn all this into an iron chain of memory when his team go out into the Telstra Stadium tomorrow.

He has to say that they must forget the momentum the French bring into the game. If you are hard enough, confident enough in your own nerve and achievement, you can stop momentum. You can stop it in the heads of your opponents, as a great champion does when he lands a big early blow and says: "How much more of that would you like?"

Of course, some anxieties run so deep they cannot be ignored. As the hard business of the square ring also tells you, it is possible for fighters to lose everything all of a sudden. One moment they are punching their weight. The next they have a great hollowness inside. England must remove that fear in the early going, or it could corrode everything they do. They shouldn't forget, certainly, that it is a myth that you don't suddenly become a bad fighter - or a bad team. It can happen in a disembowelling rush.

England must pray that the confirmation of Mike Catt's role as chief operating tactician and minder will continue to fortify Wilkinson and that the latter's prodigious kicking, which has been all the more remarkable because it has been accompanied by such a desperate loss of touch and judgement in so many other aspects of his play, will hold up. They must hope that Johnson can light fires again.

For the Australians and their besieged coach, Eddie Jones, there are other yearnings. They can tell themselves that they have nothing to lose, and that if any encouragement can be given to a crowd of 80,000 the response is likely to be astonishing enough to provide an emotional enthronement at the edge of the grave. How can this be achieved? By some early cavalry charging from the back row of David Lyons, Phil Waugh and George Smith, and a proper unleashing of the potential attacking brilliance of Wendell Sailor, Lote Tuqiri and Mat Rogers. They can, at the eleventh hour, stir up the nation.

Woodward's men can grind it behind the kicking machine, Wilkinson; Jones's can simply run for it in the belief that when it comes right down to it, Australians tend not to lose in front of their own people. Not when they have their blood - and some exceptional talent. This is not so much tradition as old and proven chemistry. Sometimes things happen at places like the Telstra Stadium because they are supposed to, not because they are logical.

But talking of logic, it needs to be said that of their last 13 collisions in the Bledisloe Cup, eight have ended in favour of the Aussies, and in three of their defeats they were never separated from the All Blacks by more than seven points - or a single score and conversion. It is also relevant that the All Blacks, after showing much promise, trailed out of the last three World Cups with bitterly disappointing performances when put under pressure by Australia, South Africa and France.

It means that here, of all places, it should not be assumed that the script is already written in the big blue sky. Can England and Australia win? You might not, if you believe that the All Blacks and France are suddenly as good as most people think they are, want to bet your last piece of bully beef. But you could give it a go, mate. Many stranger things have, after all, happened down by the billabong.