Maori offer extra test for dirt-trackers

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The Independent Online

There are tour games that offer fringe players a heaven-sent opportunity to force their way into the Test elite, and there are fixtures with the New Zealand Maori, which might have been designed with the opposite in mind. Many a red-rose wannabe has seen his international ambitions evaporate into the chill night air of the North Island, most notably in 1998, when the prospects of a large number of Englishmen went "pop" all over Rotorua.

That England XV lost 62-14, and the memory of it still keeps people awake at night. The Maori are not quite the overwhelming force they once were, however. Martin Johnson, buoyed by his Test side's unexpected victory over the Wallabies at the weekend, can legitimately dream of victory when his "dirt-trackers" mark the Maori union's centenary here in Hawke's Bay tomorrow.

"It's the biggest of our midweek games on this trip," said the England manager. "We know the way the Maori like to play: they have strong attacking runners, they off-load well and they love to go wide. They've been around all my rugby life and it's good that the tradition continues."

Injuries among the 28 Englishmen left on tour – the bulk of the Test side flew home on Sunday – have forced a delay in Johnson's team announcement, but there are high hopes that the Wasps outside centre Dominic Waldouck will be fit to start. The No 13 position is still generating debate and had the uncapped 22-year-old Londoner built on his bright start against the Aussie Baa-Baas week ago, instead of damaging an ankle after half an hour, he might already have nailed himself a place in the new Elite Player Squad.

Johnson will also be looking long and hard at the Bath prop David Flatman, who needs a big game to press his claims, along with the Gloucester lock Dave Attwood, already one of the big winners on this tour.

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