The perceived wisdom (from both sides) for Saturday’s first quarter final seems to be this: the poms are in a shambles having been smashed twice by the French before the cup and by the Boks during it; the Wallabies have turned themselves around and are looking like possible cup challengers; a 15 point margin to the Aussies. Easy.
Like a 10 year old kid and who’s got an inkling about Santa – I want desperately to believe this story, but can’t stop myself from knowing that something isn’t quite right. I will be the happiest man in South-West London if it is, but since Australia’s world cup win in 1999, out of the six games played against a full strength England in the Northern Hemisphere, the Wallabies have won only one. This includes a certain match at Twickenham on the 12th of November 2005, where Andy Sheridan and Phil Vickery (the England props on Saturday) reduced an Aussie front row to uncontested scrums. The shame.
I was at that game and the ones before it. Perhaps these repeated horrendous experiences have biased my viewpoint negatively, or perhaps I don’t wear the Green and Gold glasses quite so much against England? Either way, I don’t think Saturday is nearly so clear cut and that there are plenty of reasons why this is shaping up to be a close run thing. Here are a few of the key factors:
- The backline – if on form it’s got buckets of danger and experience; Gregan, Giteau, Mortlock, Latham, Tuqiri(?). These are truly world class players who can each break a game by themselves. Who are the first choice England centres?
- George Smith – pushing at being best openside in the world. Not only do England not have a resident 7, they’ve co-opted a second best 6 (Moody) into the spot. The benched Waugh would still win this battle
- Combinations and leadership – whether it’s a smaller talent pool or more decisive selectors, many of the key combos on the park are established; Vickerman/Sharpe, Smith/Elsom/Palu, Giteau/Mortlock, Gregan (leaders in italics).
- Most obvious – the front row. Sheridan is a freak, Vickery no slouch. Our boys (including the self-same Dunning and Baxter from the ’05 game mentioned above) need to have come a long way to not get seriously dicked. We know Rolland is the ref – what does this mean?
- Wilkinson’s boot. Finals games are always close and let’s face it, Australia today doesn’t have a top flight kicker like Burke, Lynagh, Carter or Wilkinson. Should we win this game, this will still be a big problem.
- No Larkham for Australia. Let’s calm down a bit, Barnes had a good game against Wales, but this will be his 4th test ever. My third positive point above would look a damn-site more powerful with the 100+ capper in there
What I’ll add to these is an observation that what made Australia look so good in the tri-nations this year was error-free rugby, which in turn created a pressure on the opposition to yield mistakes (like the Hayman card) and points. This discipline, even against the minnows (like Wales) has been frustratingly missing during the pool stages of the cup. Wilkinson on kicking form will win a game based on this alone.
What you can see from all of this is that I think it’s going to be close. Too close for comfort. On form, Australia should run in a few tries through a rampaging Mortlock and Latham, but Johnny will tick over the 3 pointers and Sackey and Robinson also have the knack of scoring. I say the Wallabies, but not by much.
Australia: 15 Chris Latham, 14 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 13 Stirling Mortlock (c), 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Lote Tuqiri, 10 Berrick Barnes, 9 George Gregan, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 George Smith, 6 Rocky Elsom, 5 Daniel Vickerman, 4 Nathan Sharpe, 3 Guy Shepherdson, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Matt Dunning
Replacements: Adam Freier, Al Baxter, Hugh McMeniman, Stephen Hoiles, Phil Waugh, Julian Huxley, Drew Mitchell.
England (revised): 15 Jason Robinson, 14 Paul Sackey, 13 Mathew Tait, 12 Mike Catt, 11 Josh Lewsey, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Andy Gomarsall, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Lewis Moody, 6 Martin Corry, 5 Ben Kay, 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Phil Vickery (c), 2 Mark Regan, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 George Chuter, 17 Matt Stevens, 18 Lawrence Dallaglio, 19 Joe Worsley, 20 Peter Richards, 21 Toby Flood, 22 Dan Hipkiss.
Date: Saturday, 6 October
Kick-off: 15:00 (14:00 BST; 13:00 GMT)
Venue: Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Touch judges: Paul Honiss (New Zealand), Nigel Owens (Wales)
Television match official: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Assessor: Tappe Henning (South Africa)