White the English weapon to counter Australia's hoodwinking scrummagers

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The Independent Online

If you can't beat it, cheat in it - "it" being the scrum, where mind and muscle come together to establish the psychological and physical axis around which a game of rugby is played. A dominant set-piece allows a team to fix their patterns, run their moves, impose their strategy; a back-pedalling scrum leaves them up the creek without a paddle. The only way to limit the damage is to fiddle, to dupe, to hoodwink, and hope for the best. Australia are masters of the art.

If you can't beat it, cheat in it - "it" being the scrum, where mind and muscle come together to establish the psychological and physical axis around which a game of rugby is played. A dominant set-piece allows a team to fix their patterns, run their moves, impose their strategy; a back-pedalling scrum leaves them up the creek without a paddle. The only way to limit the damage is to fiddle, to dupe, to hoodwink, and hope for the best. Australia are masters of the art.

So masterful, indeed, that the Wallaby pack spent the whole of the previous World Cup final being dismembered by their English opponents, yet still managed to take the match to the wire. Seven months on, it still rankles with the red rose army. Clive Woodward, the England coach, believes his side would have secured the Webb Ellis Trophy in normal time, sparing themselves 20-odd minutes of torment, had the refereeing of the scrummage been up to scratch. He is not far wrong. Australia pulled every stunt in the book that night, and got away with green-and-gold murder.

Woodward's opposite number, the super-smart tactician Eddie Jones, knew something last November. Having lost his senior tight-head prop, Ben Darwin, to a career-ending injury the previous weekend, he could have called up Patricio Noriega, a set-piece technician of great renown who learned his trade in his native Argentina.

Instead, Jones went into the final with Al Baxter and Matt Dunning, two powder-puff rookies fresh out of kindergarten. This seemed odd at the time, but there was method in the madness. The Wallabies made a virtue of their own weakness by drawing their aggressive opponents onto them, crying "foul" and conning a stream of penalties out of the officials. It was rugby's version of "rope-a-dope".

Fast Eddie, a front-row forward during his playing days with New South Wales, has a reputation for this kind of thing. One former Wallaby international who played regularly against teams coached by Jones said recently: "There always seems to be a scrummaging issue when Eddie is involved. You never get a straight hit on one of his packs, and you never win the penalty count. He studies referees in extraordinary detail and prepares his team accordingly. When it comes to scrum-time, you lose the first three decisions and start thinking 'Uh-oh, here we go again'."

Today, England field a new front row against the Wallabies' World Cup trio. Tim Payne, of Wasps, makes his international debut, Mark Regan, of Leeds, faces Australia for the first time in four years and Julian White, of Leicester, confronts them for the first time in his career.

In many respects, White holds the key. Considered to be the strongest scrummager in the British Isles - the most powerful in Europe, according to some - it will be down to him to work out ways of attacking the Australian set-piece without getting on the nerves of Paddy O'Brien, the experienced New Zealand official who has charge of the game.

"The important thing is to avoid getting sucked into the mind-games," said the big Devonian, one of the supporting cast in England's World Cup squad. "I watched the scrummaging in the World Cup final very closely and we were definitely hard done by. We had a clear advantage at the set-piece, but weren't allowed to capitalise on it. But these things happen. The good sides keep their composure, stick at it and refuse to get side-tracked. Rugby at this level is about discipline and concentration."

He did not say so in as many words, but White clearly believes England lost their sense of purpose in the first Test against the All Blacks in Dunedin a fortnight ago.

"There was a lot of discussion about the scrum before that game and a lot of people assumed we would shove the New Zealand pack all over the pitch," he said.

"I thought that was pretty dangerous talk, because the All Blacks had scrummaged well against a good South African pack in the World Cup, and I went into the match feeling under a lot of pressure. I suppose I should have backed myself and attacked them more than I did, but it didn't happen that way. For whatever reason, we let them come at us.

"We took a much more positive approach to the Auckland Test and started really well. But the game changed when Simon Shaw was sent off. Simon is one of the best second-row scrummagers in the Premiership and while Lawrence Dallaglio did a fantastic job filling in for him, we were obviously up against it. I feel we dealt with it, though and made the best of a bad job. There were a lot of frustrations for all of us in New Zealand, but I thought we came away from Auckland with some self-respect."

White may have felt under pressure in Dunedin, but it will be worse here, now that he has the dead weight of increased responsibility on his shoulders. Having played most of his Test rugby with the likes of Jason Leonard and Martin Johnson around him, he suddenly finds himself cast in the role of "guv'nor".

His direct opponent is Bill Young, who stood tall amid the ruins of the Australian pack last year. Young is known in Wallaby circles as "the battler", and he has earned himself a reputation for durability. The surest way of breaking the home forwards today would be to subdue the 29-year-old Sydneysider.

To do that, White and his fellow English scrummagers will need an even break from the officials - the kind of break Trevor Woodman and Phil Vickery patently did not receive in Sydney on World Cup final night.

The tourists may have spent the week dissecting the games of Young, Baxter and Brendan Cannon, who has been selected at hooker, but they know full well that the real threat will come from the bloke in the glass booth situated high above the pitch at Suncorp Stadium. His name? Eddie Jones.

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