James Lawton: Mitchell stays cool as Australia's mind games betray apprehension

Rugby World Cup: All Black coach reacts to Wallaby counterpart with contempt as Toulouse's outside-half prepares to inspire his comrades
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The sizeable chunk of Australia separating the battle lines of the Wallabies and the All Blacks grew still wider yesterday when one coach told the other that his star player was a myth just waiting to be destroyed. And the other one shook his head and said: "To tell you the truth, I just don't know where the guy is coming from."

You would have to drive a day and night to make it from Coffs Harbour, where the critically despised Aussies are holding up and their embattled coach, Eddie Jones, is launching into another bout of psychological warfare, to Melbourne, where the All Blacks have elected to stay in their trenches rather than put themselves into the middle of the ballyhoo building towards Saturday's semi-final here. But in some ways you would probably be better off in a spacecraft. There is so much ground to cover.

Coffs Harbour, Sydney, Melbourne ... they're just names on a very large map that shrinks dramatically when you measure the stylistic distance between these teams and the men who are shaping them.

The growing suspicion here is that the controversial Jones, who has been relentlessly criticised for failing to show evidence of the seamless team-building that marked the World Cup-winning campaigns of his predecessors Bob Dwyer (1991) and Rod Macqueen (1999), is fearful that another kind of gap will open up in the stadium where the Aboriginal heroine Cathy Freeman so warmed the nation three years ago.

Indeed, the Australian apprehension is that a chasm will be created by the perfectly grooved rhythm of one team and the disarray of the other.

That, anyway, is the theory and certainly there is no shortage of circumstantial evidence in the words of Jones that brought such a low-key but contemptuous response from his All Black rival John Mitchell.

Jones' target is Carlos Spencer, the New Zealand fly-half who, with France's prodigy Frédéric Michalak, is being seen as the major creative force in this fifth World Cup of rugby.

Jones said: "He's got the ability to change a game, no doubt - but he's also the sort of player that if you stop the All Black gain-line advantage, you can put under a bit of pressure. When he is put under that pressure he feels it. He's liable to make mistakes. If you stop gain-line advantage, any five-eighth [fly-half], it doesn't matter how good he is, starts to make decision mistakes and skill errors."

This tactical treatise was more extravagantly expressed by the former Wallaby forward Sam Scott-Young, who became notorious from one tip of New Zealand to the other when he reacted to the haka by winking and blowing a kiss. This week's missile was a raspberry. "I'd tell the Wallaby forwards," Scott-Young said, "not to let him go if they get hold of that snooty little guy [Spencer] with the tattoos. He's got fantastic skills, but niggle him, smash him in defence, mess up his hair, and he'll get cranky and start looking for who's coming at him next. Watch his game deteriorate under that sort of pressure."

When this stream of consciousness was presented to Mitchell, whose expanding of the All Black game has been vitally served by the nerve and ingenuity of the man now at the top of Australia's most wanted list, he looked like a legal brain being assailed by a bar-full of barrack room lawyers. "I just don't want to go into any of this," Mitchell said. "I just want to stay in my own backyard and do my job. At this stage of a tournament at this level I really think it is the only way to go."

But if Mitchell was dismissive of Aussie mind games as he announced a team unchanged from that which sent home the revived threat of South Africa last weekend, he thinks rather more of their capacity to play far beyond the indifferent form which has marked their campaign thus far.

"As we finish off our work," Mitchell said, "we can't forget that it will take a massive performance to get us to the final. This is Australia playing the World Cup in their own country - and they are defending champions. We as New Zealanders - especially this side - never underestimate an Australia side. They have more attacking threats in their team than any other opposition that we've faced in the World Cup to date. They are organised and very structured and if we are not precise in what we do we will be punished."

Two of the threats Mitchell has in mind, the former rugby league stars Wendell Sailor and Mat Rogers, were considered by some Australian critics lucky to make it into a team that was also unchanged despite an error-strewn game against Scotland in Brisbane at the weekend.

"There were some mistakes," Jones conceded, "but I was very happy with the way they went out and took the game away from Scotland in the second half. I have always said that this was a team building to good performance at the right time."

Mitchell, being a New Zealander, is inevitably more circumspect but he doesn't conceal his pleasure at the impact of his rampaging hooker, Kevin Mealamu, and relentless No 8, Jerry Collins.

Their blistering form has taken much of the edge off his disappointment that, in still another fitness test, his vice-captain and centre, Tana Umaga, again failed to make it into the action. "He trained fully," Mitchell said, "but he's still not sharp enough to be considered." Talking of sharpness, how did the coach assess the razored work of Collins? "Put it this way," he said. "I don't think I'd like to be running into him."

That, we can assume, also goes for the Australia fly-half Stephen Larkham, who must already have bleakly concluded that while the Wallabies are attacking Collins' friend Carlos, he may just have a few targets of his own.