England wary of burn-out threat

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The Independent Online

England's tourists have started preparations for this weekend's opening Test with the All Blacks in Dunedin, both the most welcoming and least accommodating of New Zealand's rugby cities, but yesterday's training session at King's College was not one of the "full-on" spectaculars so cherished by Clive Woodward and his phalanx of coaches. In fact, it was more of a "walk-through" session, and with good reason. The poor bloody infantry are out on their feet.

England's tourists have started preparations for this weekend's opening Test with the All Blacks in Dunedin, both the most welcoming and least accommodating of New Zealand's rugby cities, but yesterday's training session at King's College was not one of the "full-on" spectaculars so cherished by Clive Woodward and his phalanx of coaches. In fact, it was more of a "walk-through" session, and with good reason. The poor bloody infantry are out on their feet.

One or two of those who secured the World Cup last November - the Northampton scrum-half, Matt Dawson, springs to mind, as does the Bath centre Mike Tindall - have enjoyed some quality rest and recuperation in recent weeks, largely because their broken bodies left them with no alternative. But many of their peers, not least the captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, have been at it morning, noon and night since they returned from Australia with the Webb Ellis Trophy. Burn-out? Incineration, more like.

Needless to say, the All Blacks will be far fresher when Saturday comes. The players in Graham Henry's squad will be a mere dozen or so games into their season, having played a warm-up match or two for their professional franchises, a Super 12 campaign and a national trial.

Generally speaking, a New Zealand Test player would reckon on something in the region of a 27-fixture programme, including a few end-of-term gallops at National Provincial Championship level and, maybe, a couple of European tour outings in November. English players cop the better part of 35 games per season - often as many as 40.

Hence the discussions currently taking place on the vexed subject of the global season. The International Rugby Board, urged on by senior figures at the Rugby Football Union, are setting up a feasibility study into squaring the northern hemisphere calendar with the southern hemisphere fixture list, thereby ensuring that top-level players are not travelling to the ends of the earth for one last Test match when they should be lazing around on a beach.

As ever, there are difficulties - rugby in England in July and August is a non-starter, just as it would be in South Africa and Australia in January - but Woodward, for one, does not believe them to be insurmountable.

"I think it can happen," said the coach. "I certainly don't think it's pie in the sky, because there are people on the IRB now, people like Fran Cotton, who have a track record of getting things done. It will take some strong leadership to pull it off, but it could be a very good thing for the game."

Cotton, the former England and Lions prop renowned as a rucker and mauler on the union's political front, has long been concerned at the amount of rugby heaped on the leading players, and he is not alone. The Premiership clubs, who have fought more than one boardroom battle with Cotton since the dawning of professionalism eight years ago, also fear for the well-being of their prize assets.

Sale, for instance, allow Jason Robinson the freedom to follow his own training regime, rather than flog him into the dirt. Yet Robinson, who is supremely well conditioned, has opted out of this trip, citing exhaustion.

Josh Lewsey, the Wasps wing, is here, along with more than a dozen of his fellow World Cup medallists. Regarded as one of the two or three fittest players in the squad, he is relishing the prospect of this tilt at the All Blacks on their own territory, after finding himself on the painful end of two desperate hidings in 1998. However, he does not deny that the 2003-04 campaign has placed inordinate demands on his reserves of energy.

"It's been a long year," he admitted yesterday. "We do work hard, and we do pick up a lot of bumps and bruises. But it's important to put things into perspective and look at the people we're playing over the last three weeks of the season. Arguably, the All Blacks are the best team in the world, and in many ways this is the home of rugby. Everyone here talks about the game; they're fantastically passionate and it is obvious how much the sport means to them.

"Also, we're not the most popular team in these parts. If this combination of factors doesn't excite you, irrespective of how tired you might be, you shouldn't be here in the first place."

Woodward's men will "front up", as Lewsey puts it. They generally do, regardless of battle fatigue. But will they be in prime nick? Hardly. If they run out of

here, the boot will be on the other foot in the autumn, when they host a weary Australia and a punch-drunk South Africa at Twickenham. It is far from ideal, though. If these heavyweight meetings are to tell us what we need to know about the balance of union power, the playing field needs to be levelled.

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