England youngsters rise above rough treatment

England XV 42 New Zealand Barbarians 17
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The Independent Online

Looking like Luca Brasi from The Godfather with his beaten-up face and his hit-man's overcoat, Martin Johnson managed a smile of sorts as he flourished the Webb Ellis Cup beneath the noses of yet another adoring crowd. This was no mean achievement, for the England captain had just endured the day from hell: a painful defeat in the Midlands derby, followed by a claustrophobic helicopter flight to London in the challenging company of Matthew Dawson, one of the great man's conquerors and not the sort to pass up the opportunity of bending his ear on the subject of Northampton's superiority over Leicester.

"Generally speaking, it's not the brightest idea to have a go at Martin in a confined space - especially in a helicopter, where there is absolutely nowhere to go in an emergency," said Paul Grayson, who would have played alongside Dawson at Franklin's Gardens but for the rival attraction of a sell-out occasion at Twickenham. "But under the circumstances, I'm sure Matt went for it anyway. The double over Leicester? I might just raise the subject with Johnno myself, provided there's a door nearby."

Actually, it could have been worse for Johnson. Had he opted to play for Clive Woodward's unfamiliar England XV rather than turn out for his club, he would have found himself sharing a rectangle of grass with Mr Troy Flavell of North Harbour - a meeting of minds, not to mention clenched fists and stiffened forearms, that might have resulted in all manner of disciplinary mayhem. To use the time-honoured rugby phrase, Flavell "put it about a bit" on Saturday, "it" being any part of his body capable of inflicting injury on key members of the opposition, most notably Richard Hill, whose rearranged features bore graphic testament to the quality of his rival's handiwork. Johnson would not let such antics go unpunished, that's for sure.

Together with Taine Randell and the fiercely competitive Josh Blackie - a top-notch New Zealand open-side specialist to place alongside Richie McCaw, Marty Holah and Daniel Braid - Flavell made this Johnson-less England work for their forward ascendancy, but Woodward was quietly infuriated by the big Maori's excesses and the red rose hierarchy duly cited the miscreant after casting an eye over the video footage. This was not the only aspect of the weekend proceedings that got Woodward's goat, either. Not to put too fine a point on it, the coach was irritated by the whole shebang.

"That was a difficult week," he said, looking back over the trials and tribulations of selecting a team with one hand tied behind his back, "and we won't be doing it again. Our international set-up is not geared towards playing friendly matches, and as long as I'm in charge, there won't be any more of them." Woodward's paymasters at the Rugby Football Union may not feel any pressing need to apologise as they sit in their counting-house calculating the proceeds from this "celebration" event, but they should. From the moment it was first mooted, the game was a farrago waiting to happen. Nothing that occurred, or did not occur, on Saturday rescued it from its entirely predictable fate.

Not even the sight of Matt Stevens stampeding 30-odd metres upfield like one of Hemingway's bulls; not even the glimpse of the sublime offered by James Simpson-Daniel, who found Ollie Smith with a "blind" pass that would have flummoxed a defensive system far more accomplished than that cobbled together in a matter of hours by a scratch Barbarians team; not even the remarkable accuracy of Paul Grayson's cross-field punting, which earned tries for Simpson-Daniel and the rejuvenated Ben Cohen, who revelled in the kind of runnable possession denied him during the World Cup campaign. These were fleeting shafts of light on the surface of a stagnant pond.

Seven years previously, Randell had laid waste to Twickenham as the pick of a New Zealand Baa-Baas team featuring some of the outstanding players of the age: Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens and Justin Marshall, Sean Fitzpatrick and Olo Brown, the young Andrew Blowers and the great Michael Jones. No caps were awarded by England that day - just about the only similarity between the two fixtures. This invitation team was largely out of season, out of shape and, after half an hour of semi-entertaining cut and thrust, out of gas.

"We played pretty well for about 35 minutes, and then the juice disappeared," said Randell, one of the fitter Baa-Baas, thanks to his regular outings with Saracens. "I could see my blokes blowing, and blowing hard. I suspected before the game that the second half wouldn't be a good thing to be involved in from our perspective, and that's the way it turned out. Still, it was a fun week for us. Plenty of beer, not too much training."

The next time Englishmen and New Zealanders mix in these numbers, beer will be entirely off tap. England travel to All Black country in June for a two-Test series against Graham Henry's first silver-ferned combination, and while Randell will not be there - "I'm a Saracen now; no more Test rugby for me," he confirmed - the former 1999 World Cup captain will be captivated by the meeting of those who won the 2003 tournament and those who believe they should have won it. "Depending on who England send - and I hope to God they don't cheapen the shirt by selecting a weak squad, as they did in 1998 - it could be a royal rumble," the flanker said.

Woodward's selectorial consistency, part of the bedrock of England's success in Australia, suggests he will travel with the strongest, most experienced squad at his disposal - good news for those who measure English rugby by its results in the Test arena, but worrying for those impatient twentysomethings who want it all now.

Take Stevens, the 21-year-old prop from Bath, as an example. Apart from one dodgy scrum against Tony Woodcock and the odd butterfingered fumble, he looked a million dollars on Saturday. But Phil Vickery and Julian White, two of the most formidable tight-head operators in the business, are ahead of him in the pecking order. He has much to do before nailing down a place in the summer tour party.

"I have my aspirations in terms of building an international career," Stevens said. "But I'm still learning my trade. Bath play me off the bench in Premiership rugby, and I'll probably be back among the replacements at Saracens next weekend. If that's the case, I'll take it for what it is and do whatever is asked of me. I loved being out there in front of that crowd, and I want more of it. But I know I have to get my basics right before I start thinking of playing for England again."

Right at the start of the Woodward era, another Bath front-rower was introduced to big-time international rugby without knowing nearly enough about the basics. His name was Andy Long, and he quickly disappeared from view. On Saturday, he was on the red rose bench as umpteenth-choice hooker, and there he remained, anonymous and invisible. England will not make the same mistake with Stevens. Six years down the road, they too understand the importance of learning the trade.

England XV: Tries Cohen 2, Grayson, Stevens, Simpson-Daniel, Tindall; Conversions Grayson 3; Penalties Grayson 2. New Zealand Barbarians: Tries Flavell, Lowen; Conversions Jackson 2; Penalty Jackson.

ENGLAND XV: J Robinson (Sale); J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), O Smith (Leicester), S Abbott (Wasps), B Cohen (Northampton); P Grayson (Northampton), A Gomarsall (Gloucester); T Woodman (Gloucester), A Titterrell (Sale), M Stevens (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), D Grewcock (Bath), M Corry (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens, capt), J Worsley (Wasps). Replacements: P Sanderson (Harlequins) for Hill, 6-20 and for Corry, 54; M Tindall (Bath) for Smith, 54; A Sheridan (Sale) for Woodman, 54; H Vyvyan (Newcastle) for Hill, 60; K Bracken (Saracens) for Gomarsall, 63; B Gollings (Newcastle) for Abbott, 79.

NEW ZEALAND BARBARIANS: J Muller (Cats); R Gear (North Harbour), K Lowen (Waikato), D Gibson (Leicester), D Albanese (Leeds); G Jackson (Bay of Plenty), D Lee (Otago); A Woodcock (North Harbour), A Hore (Taranaki), D Manu (Waikato), T Flavell (North Harbour), S Maling (Otago), T Randell (Saracens, capt), J Blackie (Otago), X Rusg (Auckland). Replacements: S Haring (Otago) for Rush, 38; A Tiatia (Harlequins) for Hore, 48; N Maxwell (Canterbury) for Maling, 58; B Willis (Harlequins) for Lee, 60; T Vili (Borders) for Gibson, 65; M Hurter (Newcastle) for Manu, 65; E Taione (Newcastle) for Gear, 73.

Referee: J Jutge (France).