England out to make opening statement

Group c: Woodward's side hope to win by at least 60 points against Georgia tomorrow but prop expects a tough battle
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The Independent Online

Lawrence Dallaglio - more famous than Georgia itself, let alone the Georgian rugby team - considers it vital that England "make a statement" in their opening World Cup match at the Subiaco Oval tomorrow afternoon. Even if they succeed, they will be off the pace. Their opponents, widely expected to get their retaliation in early when they play their first-ever international match against the men from Twickenham, spent yesterday getting their statements in early, too. Comments like this one from their coach, Claude Saurel: "I think England have reason to be afraid."

Saurel, a Frenchman from the deep south, was a flanker in the great Beziers side of the 1970s - an outfit that could lay fair claim to being the roughest club team in the world, as well as the most successful. He remains one of the more intimidating figures on the rugby circuit, and when he says that the Georgians are beginning to understand and absorb the renowned Beziers "style", if that is not a misuse of the word, it is time to reach for the full metal jacket.

Not that the Georgians are planning anything too violent. "There is this impression that we will be wild, that we will kill some English players," said Zaza Kassachvili, the wonderfully enthusiastic vice-president of the Georgian Rugby Union. "This will not happen. We will play with respect." But Kassachvili also said that his team, pound for pound as physically strong as any in this tournament, were fitter and better prepared than ever before. "We will fight with big hearts," he promised. "Georgian rugby is a baby about to be born. We hope it will be strong and beautiful."

One way or another, then, England can expect to be tested - if only for 15 minutes or so at some point in the contest. They will win by a distance, of course; anything less than a 60-point victory would be a disappointment, anything below a 50-pointer an embarrassment. But there should at least be some fun and games up front, owing to the Georgian obsession with the scrummage and various forms of up-the-jumper techniques. If the ball disappears for long periods, it will be because the men from the Caucasus have stumbled across it.

England are hungry for this match. As they are pretty much at full strength - a selection decision based entirely around the fact that the Springboks are next on the agenda, and that no team in their right mind would want to go into that sort of fixture without a decent "hit-out" behind them - it is difficult to believe that they will not score a bucket-load of tries, for the Georgians cannot hope to compete in the wide open spaces.

More to the point, Martin Johnson's side are sick to the back teeth of fighting the phoney war. Punch-ups in training, which have been fairly common these last few days, suggest a certain impatience in the ranks.

Dallaglio, no longer the national captain but every inch a leader nonetheless, believes England are far better equipped to go the distance in this competition than they were in 1999, compromised as they were then by a lack of know-how in important positions and a build-up that might have been planned in the funny farm. "There has been a massive change over these last four years," he said. "There is more experience, professional structures have moved the game to another level and we have some momentum because of the quality of our recent performances. Add these things together and you have a rich mix of ingredients."

Georgia do not have a rich anything, sadly. With the single exception of their injured captain, Ilya Zedguinidze, they will put their best players on the field tomorrow, but four of them - Bessik Khamashuridze, Malkhaz Urjukashvili, Tedo Zibzibadze and Pavle Jimsheladze - have forfeited contracts with French clubs by opting to represent their country here. There are a couple of forwards who play front-line professional rugby with Beziers, and the hooker Akvsenti Guiorgadze earns a decent wage in Italy with Rovigo, but by and large, this is a National League One team left to fend for itself in world-class territory.

"Whatever happens, this will be a positive experience for Georgian rugby," insisted Kassachvili, who, as a doctor of physics, may have something very clever up his sleeve. "If we lose by 60 points, then we will digest it and do better next time. The main objective is to play with pride and discover something about ourselves. This is our beginning."

England will not expect to learn anything at all, except perhaps that Iain Balshaw is worthy of a place in the starting line-up against South Africa. According to the coaches, the Bath back has rediscovered his 2001 Six Nations form, so if he gets on the field tomorrow, he will do things no Georgian rugby player has ever witnessed. As the underdogs have been saying all week, they are here to learn.