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It's the quicks v Jonny and his plodders

Spiro Zavos1/10/07

AFTER giving England a scare for the first 30 minutes of their enthralling "elimination" match, Tonga got tired and careless and gifted "Les Rosbifs" a victory that looked more impressive on the points tally than it was.

The World Cup is a cruel event. Tonga, who played the match of the tournament against South Africa and led England for 30 minutes, are now out of France.

England fancy their chances against the Wallabies because they believe their front five can out-muscle their Wallabies counterparts in the scrums and mauls. Certainly this was the game plan (if this negative, plodding system can be called a plan) against Tonga. Virtually every lineout ball and every scrum was driven forward, while nearly every maul was rumbled ahead.

While Tonga's fitness held, this game plan seemed to be backfiring. Tonga's scrum generally held up well. If Tonga's scrum was competitive against England, you'd hope that the improved Wallabies model will be competitive, too. It is important for the Wallabies that the referee adjudicates on what is happening on the field now, and not what happened several years ago with the Wallabies front row.

Tonga were clever, too, in defusing the rolling mauls by contesting fiercely at times and every now and again disengaging completely. Unfortunately, the excellent referee Alain Rolland, allowed the England hooker to disengage and then engage into a driving maul, which resulted in England winning a penalty and Jonny Wilkinson kicking the penalty to equalise the score at 3-3.

I thought Rolland and the touch judges, too, were lenient at the beginning of the game with Lewis Moody, who threw himself late at the legs of the Tongan fullback. There appeared to be no real attempt at a charge-down. The tackle, for that was what it was, was designed to injure the ankles and shins of the kicker. This should not be allowed.

England had two match-winners on the field, Wilkinson, who is worth about 20 points for England with his kicking and general play, and Paul Sackey, a big, fast winger with good rugby nous. He picked up Wilkinson's intention to give away a kick at goal and positioned himself cleverly for the pinpoint kick from the five-eighth to score England's first try. Then he capitalised on a breakdown in a Tongan attack to scorch away for a try that took England to a 19-10 lead, against the run of play, at half-time.

This brings us to Lote Tuqiri. Some Wallabies tragics in Montpellier grabbed me a few days ago to insist that I write down this joke: "Lote Tuqiri couldn't run around a statute." And the reply: "He couldn't tackle one, either."

This is, of course, unfair to Tuqiri. The statistics show that he makes more metres with the ball and more tackles than just about anyone else in the side. But there is the curious fact that he hasn't scored a try in the tournament. And this is the player who in the 2003 final scored a brilliant, leaping try. He hasn't shown this brilliance, or the speed of 2003, for a couple of seasons. So I'd expect Wilkinson to test Tuqiri's speed against that of Sackey with chip kicks and long, raking kicks to the corners.

During the early part of the match, when the Tongan centres found holes in the England defence relatively easily, I wrote in my notebook: "If the Tongans can make breaks like this in the centres, what will Stirling Mortlock do to England?"

One thing not working in favour of the Wallabies will be Stephen Larkham's absence. Before the World Cup began, the Herald ran an interesting set of statistics showing that the Gregan-Larkham-Giteau-Mortlock combination had won 10 of its past 16 Tests. Berrick Barnes clearly has a big challenge in front of him at Marseilles on Saturday.

England have got the quarter-final they think they can win. But so have Australia. The hard, fast pitch at the Velodrome at Marseilles will suit the quicker, faster and more skilful Wallabies.

This is, of course, unfair to Tuqiri. The statistics show that he makes more metres with the ball and more tackles than just about anyone else in the side. But there is the curious fact that he hasn't scored a try in the tournament. And this is the player who in the 2003 final scored a brilliant, leaping try. He hasn't shown this brilliance, or the speed of 2003, for a couple of seasons. So I'd expect Wilkinson to test Tuqiri's speed against that of Sackey with chip kicks and long, raking kicks to the corners.

During the early part of the match, when the Tongan centres found holes in the England defence relatively easily, I wrote in my notebook: "If the Tongans can make breaks like this in the centres, what will Stirling Mortlock do to England?"

One thing not working in favour of the Wallabies will be Stephen Larkham's absence. Before the World Cup began, the Herald ran an interesting set of statistics showing that the Gregan-Larkham-Giteau-Mortlock combination had won 10 of its past 16 Tests. Berrick Barnes clearly has a big challenge in front of him at Marseilles on Saturday.

England have got the quarter-final they think they can win. But so have Australia. The hard, fast pitch at the Velodrome at Marseilles will suit the quicker, faster and more skilful Wallabies.



SPIRO ZAVOS - Sydney Morning Herald | Monday, 1 October 2007 | Comment on this article

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