Wallaby keeper backs scrum to pack punch against old foe

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The Independent Online

Whenever Australia and England get together on a rugby field, the scrum is the favourite topic of Red Rose conversation. The World Cup final of 2003, the autumn Test in 2005, last year's global quarter-final in Marseilles: in each one England's pack have fond memories of quivering Wallabies, and the Aussies are never allowed to forget it. "That's fine," said Robbie Deans, Australia's head coach. "Everyone is entitled to their view. It's based on the past and I'm not too concerned with the past. Our scrum has come along significantly."

Gold and white will go at it again at Twickenham on Saturday, and the experimental law at the scrum, with back lines standing 10 metres further apart, has arguably increased the set-piece's importance. Deans, the New Zealander nearing the end of his first year as a Wallaby keeper, cites the summer's Tri-Nations for evidence.

Speaking from Italy, where Australia won 30-20 in Padova yesterday, he said: "Through the Tri-Nations we were more than competitive at the scrum. You could suggest at times we actually dominated. The ability to play off set-piece is how we measure it, and we created a lot off scrums. The first game against South Africa in Perth, we scored two first-phase tries directly from scrums. It's not an area of concern for us, and it's not surprising when you look at the exper-ience some of our blokes have got."

OK, let's look at them. Deans has five props in his touring party of 34: a mix of the callow and the much-criticised. There's Benn Robinson and Al Baxter, the first choices with hooker Stephen Moore in last weekend's 19-14 defeat by New Zealand in Hong Kong, which suggests they may face England. The other props are Matt Dunning, Sekope Kepu (a 125kg former No 8) and Ben Alexander. The last-named, a 23-year-old yet to start a Super 14 match, was pitched in against Italy yesterday. "A humungous learning curve," Alexander called it.

Baxter, the Waratahs tighthead, is a fascinating character, routinely vilified by non-Australian pundits as the soft centre of the Wallabies' scrummaging chocolate box. In Hong Kong he buckled, skewed and sweated but never visibly fretted. He also holds the Australian record of 60 caps for a prop, and he has his moments. Early in the second half, Baxter, Robinson and the increasingly influential Moore got a good hit on a Wallaby put-in near the All Black goal-line. It was the backs – Stirling Mortlock, Matt Giteau et al – who muffed the chance.

"Yes, Al has been maligned and it was becoming a bit of a fad," said Deans. "Lazy journalism, I'd say, ago-to and not necessarily based on reality. He's an intelligent man, an architect away from rugby, and a quality man on and off the field. Props go through the mill, and learning can be painful. Al's completed his apprenticeship, he's in great physical shape and enjoying his rugby. It's great to see him getting the rewards."

Some would put Baxter's longevitydown to a dearth of alternatives. The unfortunate Ben Darwin retired through injury, while Guy Shepherdson suffered horribly at Andrew Sheridan's hands in Marseilles and has been confined to the A team ever since. Rodney "Rodzilla" Blake was the big hope in 2006; last summer he hit the money trail to Bayonne in France.

Deans said: "The six Tests on this tour [he defines the Barbarians in the final match as 'a World XV'] will make us better, regardless of outcomes." The coach's own outcomes against England have been mixed. In 1983 Deans was the full-back kicking five points in an All Blacks side beaten by England at Twickenham for the first time in 47 years. "We suffered there," he recalled with a chuckle. "We had something like eight blokes winning their second cap. The great thing you can be sure of when you play England is they'll turn up and be fully committed. At Twickenham, doubly so."

In 2003, he was assistant coach to John Mitchell when England beat New Zealand in Wellington. A six-man scrum mustered around Martin Johnson to hold the All Blacks out. "Could I believe it? When you've been around this game for a while, you believe everything," said Deans. "That was a young All Blacks group as well, while that England side of '03 had deep-seatedbelief and was full of combinations, built over five years. They were at the peak of their collective understanding and resilience." A resilienceDeans has seen in his Wallabies? "That's something we aspire to, for sure."

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