Woodward cannot hide from World Cup frenzy

New year forecast: what to expect in the next 12 months
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The Independent Online

"I don't give a monkey's about the World Cup." If Clive Woodward, the England manager, said it once during the course of 2002, he said it a dozen times. It became his mantra. If he took care of the next game, whoever it might be against, the World Cup would take care of itself. That was the party line. And all the time, he was thinking about... yes, you've guessed it.

"I don't give a monkey's about the World Cup." If Clive Woodward, the England manager, said it once during the course of 2002, he said it a dozen times. It became his mantra. If he took care of the next game, whoever it might be against, the World Cup would take care of itself. That was the party line. And all the time, he was thinking about... yes, you've guessed it.

He had no choice in the matter, because everyone else kept raising the subject – not least the Springboks, who reacted to their 50-point shellacking at Twickenham by saying, more or less: "We'll have our revenge, and it will be in Perth in October."

England should have a realistic shot at glory this autumn when the tournament that matters most unfolds in Australia.

They are in the right half of the draw: if they play their cards right in the pool stage, they will not see hide nor hair of a Wallaby or an All Black until the final in Sydney.

They will be perfectly prepared, too. Woodward has a Six Nations championship, summer Tests in Wellington and Melbourne, back-to-back matches with the French and a warm-up against Wales in which to identify his optimum mix of youthful swagger and grey-bearded know-how. If England bomb, it will not be for the want of a decent build-up.

In the meantime, the most competitive English Premiership for years will be disputed all the way to the end of May – the highly-dubious shift to a winner-takes-all Grand Final system at least guarantees that much – while the two European competitions can be relied upon to press the right buttons.

The Heineken Cup is now in its pomp, a very serious tourn-ament for very serious teams. This season's major contenders – Leicester, Northampton, Gloucester, Toulouse, Biarritz, Perpignan, Llanelli, Leinster, Munster – would give all but the most accomplished international outfits a run for their travellers' cheques, particularly on home territory. The standards rise year on year.

The same cannot be said for the standard of political debate, but that will not stop the talking heads jawing the game to distraction.

The structural reorganisation in Wales is likely to be sorted long before the relegation issue in England, but expect bloodshed on both banks of the Severn. Thank heavens for the rugby.

Prediction: Good World Cup for England, but not quite good enough.

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