Woodward relishing 'ultimate challenge' posed by All Blacks

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The Independent Online

Clive Woodward would be the first to accept that he was caught with his pants down on his first coaching trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud in 1998 - five defeats in five games, three of them humiliations on an epic scale. So he must have been amused by the announcement of an unofficial curtain-raiser for England's opening Test against New Zealand in Dunedin on Saturday: a game of nude beach rugby, staged as part of the annual Backpacker Festival. The red rose vintage of six years ago would have lost this one, too.

If the chances of naked participants rising to the occasion on a winter's weekend in the South Island are rather less than great, a good proportion of the All Black public are not expecting a great deal more of Woodward and his world champions. This 31-man England party - one heavy because of the presence of Tim Payne, the uncapped prop from Wasps, as cover for the injured but fast-recovering David Flatman of Bath - has even been dismissed as a "B" team, despite the presence of 16 players involved in the successful capture of the Webb Ellis Trophy in Australia before Christmas.

Not that Graham Henry, only five days away from his first international as coach of the most celebrated rugby team in Christendom and beyond, can be counted among the belittlers. The whole of New Zealand expects the All Blacks to win this series two-zip, and had Henry still been on the outside looking in he would probably have sided with public opinion. But Henry now finds himself on the inside looking out, and that is a very different position from which to cast an eye over the next fortnight. Suffice to say the coach is more interested in building England up than knocking them down.

In any case, he has his own side to sort. Last week's All Black trial at Eden Park - a straight 80-minute match between Tana Umaga's Probables and a party-pooping Possibles team led by Jono Gibbes of Waikato and armed with a highly motivated pack of forwards - underlined the superiority of Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokocoko and the sensational Doug Howlett at full-back and wing, but opened up debates about virtually every other area of the line-up. Carlos Spencer or Andrew Mehrtens at outside-half? Justin Marshall or Byron Kelleher at scrum-half? Greg Somerville or Carl Hayman at tighthead prop? Keith Robinson or Simon Maling at lock?

Henry is scheduled to reveal his hand tomorrow, and is confidently expected to promote at least three of the Possibles' pack - Gibbes and two Aucklanders, Kees Meeuws and Xavier Rush - to the match-day squad. Both Gibbes and Rush have captaincy experience at Super 12 level and as tough local-hero types of the Todd Blackadder variety, they are capable of taking a strong lead in the kind of dog-fight expected to develop at Carisbrook, the so-called "House of Pain", this weekend.

Woodward has issues of his own to ponder. While England are far more settled in terms of selection, with natural replacements for the injured Phil Vickery, the resting Jason Robinson and the out-of-form Ben Kay, there is nothing straightforward about the stand-off, scrum-half and blind-side positions. Even so, the coach would not have put himself through the torments of an international trial for all the tea in China.

"Trials are difficult things for any coach," Woodward said yesterday. "It's easy to learn the wrong lessons from a one-off game of the kind the New Zealanders had last week, and if I had the chance to have a trial of my own, I don't think I'd go for it." Needless to say, his suspicion of the concept did not prevent him viewing the available footage of this particular example, which the Probables won by a couple of points with the help of a late penalty from Daniel Carter, the accomplished inside-centre from Canterbury.

He has also spent endless hours weighing up the evidence provided by the recent Super 12 tournament, in which the relatively unknown members of Henry's first élite squad - the utility back Nick Evans, the centre Sam Tuitupou, the No 8 Mose Tuiali'i - made such powerful cases for themselves. The flow of hard information in rugby's video age has removed much of the guesswork from the coaching game and for this reason Woodward is not losing too much shut-eye worrying about Henry and his two assistants, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, all of whom have recent experience and an intimate knowledge of British rugby. As everyone gets to see everything these days, lack of mystery is a two-way street.

For a couple of very good reasons, Woodward craves victory here. The first relates to the events across the Tasman seven months ago. "It is important we prove that our World Cup victory was not a blip in rugby history," he said. "To my mind, a Test series in New Zealand remains the ultimate challenge in the sport, because the All Blacks have this great tradition of achievement in the game. I believe English rugby is in a position to put something similar in place, because we now have such strong foundations from which to grow success. But that means winning, and continuing to win, in environments like this. It's why we're here with our strongest team, putting it all on the line."

And the second reason? That relates directly to 1998 and the God-awful thrashings England suffered as a consequence of the political disharmony at home that prevented Woodward selecting from strength. "It was more than a setback," he said. "It was a complete shambles from the start and it brought English rugby to the lowest point in its history. I don't blame any one individual for the in-fighting. But when we returned from that southern hemisphere trip and asked ourselves where we stood, the answer was: the lowest of the low.

"The response had to be completely professional, and it was. Five years later, we went to the World Cup as the best-prepared team in the tournament, and we won it. So yes, I suppose '98 was a turning point even though it was an experience I'd rather not have had, and would not recommend to anyone keen on a career in coaching.

"But rugby doesn't end at any given point. It didn't end then, and it didn't end with us winning the World Cup. Good teams continue to ask questions of themselves, and these matches against New Zealand - and the one against Australia in Brisbane - will be a test of everything we've been doing. It's a fantastic challenge, and the thought of it keeps me hungry."