Clive Woodward's face must be creased with smiles. The words employed in the build-up to today's Tri-Nations Test match between Australia and New Zealand in Sydney have been so heavily focused on forward play that the participants might have been discussing an old-fashioned Six Nations battle.
A game between two nations that once swore by the fast and loose merits of Super 12 rugby, will now, we are told, be decided up front. Had these two nations been so convinced of the merits of a forward game last November, one of them would now be world champions.
Listen to the Wallaby coach Eddie Jones on the subject. Mindful of the stuffing his pack took against the All Blacks in the wet at Wellington three weeks ago, Jones said of today's sell-out encounter at Sydney's Telstra Stadium: "It's simple if you win the game up front. But to compete and get our 50 per cent of possession against New Zealand we are going to have to be technically and tactically really good in the scrums and line-outs and put pressure on their ball."
New Zealand's forwards coach Steve Hansen echoed him: "The game is about attacking the set-pieces and getting quality possession. If you make sure you do that and the other side doesn't, you are halfway to winning the game. We have to make sure our set pieces are good as well as trying to disrupt theirs as much as possible."
Heavens be praised - southern hemisphere international rugby has realised that trying to play a Super 12-style game in an international is akin to playing one-day cricket shots in a Test match. While Australia and New Zealand were working that out, England pinched a World Cup from under their noses.
But before England laugh too loudly, they should study the potential back-line creativity of both these teams. It leaves England's ponderous plodders (Will Greenwood and Jason Robinson excepted) far behind, even though New Zealand's playmaker, Carlos Spencer, is under pressure in Sydney, after two unconvincing performances in his side's victories over Australia and South Africa last month. If Spencer fires, the All Blacks will surely win and clinch their sixth Tri-Nations title in nine years. But if he does not, the talented Australian backs could help achieve an upset.
As both Jones and Hansen acknowledge, however, events closer in are likely to be key and here the All Blacks look better equipped, even though they still lack the injured Keith Robinson and Richie McCaw.
Kees Meeuws has the power to trouble Al Baxter and Chris Jack is the best lock on display. Add to that the return of the influential Jonno Gibbes on the blindside flank and New Zealand should have the forwards to lay the base for victory. Betting against any Australian team in Australia is never clever, but if New Zealand are to confirm their progress under Graham Henry, they must win here.
Australia: C Latham; C Rathbone, S Mortlock, M Giteau, L Tuqiri; S Larkham, G Gregan (capt); B Young, B Cannon, A Baxter, J Harrison, N Sharpe, G Smith, D Lyons, P Waugh. Replacements: J Paul, M Dunning, D Vickerman, J Roe, C Whitaker, M Burke, W Sailor.
New Zealand: M Muliaina; D Howlett, T Umaga (capt), D Carter, J Rokocoko; C Spencer, J Marshall; K Meeuws, K Mealamu, C Hayman, C Jack, A Williams, J Gibbes, X Rush, M Holah. Replacements: A Hore, G Somerville, M Tuiali'i, C Newby, B Kelleher, A Mehrtens, S Tuitupou.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).
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