Referee holds key for England scrum

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The Independent Online

A year to the day since England wrestled the World Cup from Wallaby hands despite having their he-man scrum effectively emasculated by a trio of southern hemisphere officials, the great Anglo-Australian argument over who should be permitted to do what to whom at the set-piece was back on the agenda.

A year to the day since England wrestled the World Cup from Wallaby hands despite having their he-man scrum effectively emasculated by a trio of southern hemisphere officials, the great Anglo-Australian argument over who should be permitted to do what to whom at the set-piece was back on the agenda.

The foundations of England's comprehensive victory over South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday were laid by the scrummagers, who sent the Springboks backwards at an unprecedented rate of knots, and this weekend's visitors are damned if they are going to accept the same indignities.

"England are very strong, very solid, at scrum-time, so we'll have to be both technically proficient and extremely astute in that area," said George Gregan, the long-serving Wallaby captain, in London yesterday.

The word "astute" will send shivers down the spines of all who have witnessed the Australian scrummaging technique - or rather, their anti-scrummaging technique - in recent seasons. They employ a whole range of negative tactics at the set-piece, from packing down as a five rather than an eight to make it seem as though their opponents are pushing too early, to not packing down at all. What is more, they invariably get away with it.

Both camps are placing considerable emphasis on their pre-match meetings with the referee. As that referee is Paul Honiss, of New Zealand, one of the notorious World Cup final triumvirate, the Wallabies appear to have an advantage in this respect.

Honiss does not like power scrummaging, and takes enormous pleasure in preventing it happening. His highly individual take on what should and should not be permitted has worked in England's favour in the past, not least when he frustrated the hell out of the French at Twickenham in 2003, but that will hardly reassure the red rose army about this week's proceedings.

There was plenty of kidology flying around the Wallaby hotel yesterday. Eddie Jones, their ultra-talkative coach, kept his counsel for once, and by leaving the talking to Gregan and a handful of fellow senior players - the full-back Chris Latham, the midfielder Elton Flatley and the flanker Phil Waugh - Jones left the issue of the scrum contest hanging heavy in the air like a storm cloud.

"We'll be up for the battle at the set-piece," Waugh insisted. "Who's to say we won't put the same stuff on England as they're looking to put on us?"

It seems unlikely, given recent Wallaby history. As Jake White, the defeated Springbok coach, said last weekend: "Scrummaging in the northern hemisphere is completely different to what we have down south, especially in the Super 12 tournament where there is no such thing as a second shove." No country has done more to shape the style of Super 12 rugby than Australia, and if they can railroad the referee into playing to those rules on Saturday, they will be in seventh heaven.

Free of serious injury concerns, England were planning to confirm their side today. The Wallabies will wait 24 hours. Already resigned to life without two outstanding midfielders in Stephen Larkham and Stirling Mortlock, both of whom suffered fractures during the win over Scotland in Glasgow, they are likely to play Flatley at outside-half and reintroduce Mat Rogers, the former rugby league international, to their back division at outside centre. Should Clyde Rathbone, the brilliant South African-born wing, join Larkham and Mortlock on the casualty list, Wendell Sailor is likely to start the Test.

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