Kiwi legend Shelford fancies French over the 'pre-programmed' English

 

If England's fragile confidence could be lifted by an encouraging word in these educated parts there was always one outstanding candidate. Former All Black captain Wayne Shelford was the perfect choice before today's quarter-final collision with France.

The most dazzling credential of all is that he is one of the few New Zealanders to know how it is to win the World Cup. As captain, he won the nation's only world title in 1987, dismantling the French 29-9 – an early leadership statement that presaged a crushing three-year undefeated run.

Fans worshipped "Buck" Shelford, a restless, ultra-competitive character who also took his team into the heart of Maori country – he was born on the Pacific Rim of Fire in Rotorua –to produce a self-respecting Hakaritual.

The list stretches on like one of this land's long white clouds. He knows the English rugby mentality, at least of a certain vintage, having played at Northampton and coached Saracens. He is one of the hardest characters rugby has ever known, insisting the team physio sew up his scrotum badly torn in a ruck during his second Test match, against France in Nantes – a mêlée which also cost him four teeth.

Unfortunately, his gallantry went unrewarded, he was promptlyconcussed when he returned to the field and, at 53, has not the faintest recollection of that interesting encounter. But, still, what a champion for England as they go in against the fragile but always potentiallymenacing French? Sadly not, for Shelford has re-emerged from the mists of a brilliant and supremely combative career with an emphatic selection for next week's semi-finals.

He says one will involve New Zealand and South Africa and the other France and Wales.

His argument carries the same withering conviction he brought tothe challenge of becoming one ofrugby's great No 8s.

"England didn't play well against Scotland," he announces, "and are so pre-programmed they don't have options to turn to.

"[French coach] Marc Lièvremont has tried to coach the flair out of his players but I think these instincts still lie within, whereas England have gone down this route for so long I believe they are unable to change.

"While dealing with internaldissatisfaction, Lièvremont has told the team to play for themselves. He may have released the handbrake and pushed just the right motivational button. As awful as France have been, they still have a big game in them."

In normal circumstances, Shelford would be a reminder of the old advice that there are some kinds of men with whom it is best to conduct an argument by transcontinentaltelephone. On this occasion, however, you might just order another drink and glumly agree with a man who is equally convinced that a thrilling young Welsh team will have too much running power for the heroic but defensively vulnerable Ireland, particularly in the bulldozing Jamie Roberts.

Shelford tips South African method, and Morne Steyn's goal-kicking, to get the better of Australia's critically unmeasured flair, well sort of, and thinks the tough Argentina forwards might just worry the All Blacks if Richie McCaw is forced to join Daniel Carter on the sidelines.

The trouble is that it doesn't really matter where you are doing it from, a payphone in Patagonia or a nose-to-nose confrontation on the rim of a local geyser, it is still awfully hard to dispute his verdict on England.

It was different four years ago in Paris, even though the French had just delivered a second dose of World Cup devastation to the All Blacks in eight years. You had a gut instinct that maybe England had turnedback a most unpromising tide with the defeat of the dumbfounded,and just plain dumb, Australia in Marseilles.

England still had some elements of the force which had delivered the title in Sydney in 2003. There were still people around like Phil Vickery and Ben Kay and, when Jonny Wilkinson kicked, it was still within the old meticulous certainties.

England were still England and it meant rather more than the sum of their parts.

Maybe England can resurrect alittle of that old rugged mystique at Eden Park. Perhaps they will pick up the mood displayed by their warrior leader Martin Johnson this week, one which seemed to speak mosteloquently of relief that weeks ofcutting through problems had given way to the hard edge of instant life or death.

The French, after all, will have to display a much more vivid memory of the best of their rugby than they have displayed so far in this tournament. They have nothing to lose but their shame and, if England can heap alittle more on them, hard and early, maybe Wayne Shelford, and quite a number of the rest of us, will be required to think again.

Right now, though, reality insists on a degree of honesty. There is certainly not much of an instinct to make an abusive phone call.

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