Woodward must rely upon calm nerves and cool heads

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The Independent Online

There are exceptions to every rule - Bloemfontein last June being a case in point - but not even Clive Woodward would deny that his England team are prone to virulent outbreaks of Teflonitis whenever they have a meaningful international victory in their grasp. With a little more thought and a lot less hubris, they would have hit the bull's-eye against New Zealand in 1997, beaten the French in Paris in '98, secured Grand Slam glory against the Welsh in '99 and completed a Six Nations clean sweep at Murrayfield last April. One almighty cock-up a year may be acceptable in northern hemisphere circles, but the real powers in the world game see it differently.

There are exceptions to every rule - Bloemfontein last June being a case in point - but not even Clive Woodward would deny that his England team are prone to virulent outbreaks of Teflonitis whenever they have a meaningful international victory in their grasp. With a little more thought and a lot less hubris, they would have hit the bull's-eye against New Zealand in 1997, beaten the French in Paris in '98, secured Grand Slam glory against the Welsh in '99 and completed a Six Nations clean sweep at Murrayfield last April. One almighty cock-up a year may be acceptable in northern hemisphere circles, but the real powers in the world game see it differently.

Especially the Australians, who consider defeat in any kind of sporting arena to be a national betrayal. John Eales, the great Wallaby captain, may have spent the last few days telling the Queenslanders and Sydneysiders back home how difficult this afternoon's Cook Cup Test at Twickenham is likely to be, but he will still plead guilty to treachery if he and his fellow tourists are forced to give best to the Poms for the first time in five-and-a-half years.

Woodward, the red rose manager, insisted yesterday that the psychological chasm is less wide than it once was. "The Australians are no tougher than we are," he pronounced. "I just don't accept the argument. I lived in Sydney for five years and while I learned during that time that they place a higher degree of importance on sporting success than almost anything else, I also think that the English have been developing a similar toughness in recent times. I think the last Olympics proved the point. We have more Steve Redgraves, more Matthew Pinsents and, yes, more Martin Johnsons in this country than people seem to think, and the sooner we understand that, the better."

But he knows that in rugby, at least, the facts do not bear him out. The Wallabies have been played off the park by their English rivals for long periods in recent contests - in Sydney last year, they barely touched the ball for 20 minutes - yet there has never been the remotest hint of panic in the green and gold ranks. When England are being starved of possession, they hare around like Benny Hill on a bad night and concede penalties by the gross. The Australians, on the other hand, just keep doing what they do, making their tackles and finding their touches and sticking to the basics.

They did it against the Springboks in last year's World Cup semi-final and they did it against the French a fortnight ago. They not only have the confidence of world champions, but the discipline too. So when their coach, Rod Macqueen, says, as he did yesterday, that he wants his players merely to "concern themselves with playing well" in front of a sell-out audience of 75,000 today, he does so in the knowledge that if they perform to their own standards, they will probably sneak the decision.

Much has been made of the absence of 50 per cent of Macqueen's World Cup-winning vintage: Ben Tune, Jason Little, Tim Horan, Steve Larkham, George Gregan, Richard Harry, Andrew Blades and David Wilson are all missing. Eales even attempted to compare this afternoon's match with the Brisbane whitewash of two years ago, when England's third string copped a 76-0 beating. The Wallaby captain is a shrewd analyst in the normal course of events, so the assumption must be that he was enjoying a joke at his questioner's expense.

There is, of course, no comparison at all. This new Australian threequarter line can look after itself, the remodelled front row gave Scotland - Tom Smith and all - a seeing-to in Edinburgh last week, and the revamped loose combination is beginning to cook. Only the half-back pairing of Rod Kafer and Sam Cordingley has looked in any way substandard, and it is there that England must concentrate their efforts.

It is instructive that Macqueen sees Wilkinson as the single most potent threat to Australian ambitions this afternoon. A clear-cut advantage at half-back would allow Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back to dictate the pace of the game and force the Wallaby midfield into tackles they would rather not make.

As game plans go, it is hardly rocket science. It will, however, require calm nerves, cool heads and clear thinking. England have struggled on all three fronts in recent seasons, while the Wallabies have scored heavily in precisely those areas. Therein lies the difference.

* The 1999 World Cup quarter-finalists - Australia, France, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Scotland, Wales and Argentina - will be granted automatic qualification for 2003, the International Rugby Board said yesterday.

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