Oval Talk

Australia lay down World Cup marker

Oval Talk

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With less than a couple of weeks to go
until the World Cup, Australia
have laid down a marker to everyone else after they beat New Zealand 25-20 on Saturday.

The victory secured Australia's
first Tri-Nations title in 10 years and the bookies have reacted by trimming
their odds to lift the Webb Ellis trophy for a second time. William Hill cut Australia's
odds from 4-1 to 7-2.

The transformation of the team over the
last year is quite remarkable. When England
beat Australia
35-18 at Twickenham in last year's Autumn international most pundits had
written off the Wallabies. But their Kiwi coach Robbie Deans has whipped them
into shape.

And if Australia
do go on to win the World Cup, the favourites New Zealand will be left to rue
what might have been. Deans, the former Crusaders coach, was the man many Kiwis
wanted to replace Graham Henry after the disappointment of the 2007 World Cup
in France.
But after Saturday's match it looks like Deans could well be the man to inflict
more misery on New Zealand
who have gone 24 years without winning the game's biggest prize.

New Zealand will take heart from how they fought back from a half-time deficit
of 20-3 with tries from Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu. But Australia defended resolutely
throughout to nullify Henry's supposed team of superhuman ability. They
professionally ran down the clock until the referee, Wayne Barnes, blew the
final whistle to seal a memorable victory.

And it sent a stark message to the likes of
who have stuttered in their build up for the World Cup. And after the flawed
selection of England's
30-man squad Barnes may be the only Englishman to make it to the later stages
of the competition.

The 20-9 victory over Ireland, England's
first in Dublin
for eight years, does little to paper over the cracks. Martin Johnson seems to
have finally overcome his obsession with pairing Shontayne Hape and Mike
Tindall in the middle of the pitch. But he's left it too late to experiment.

Why it's taken Johnson so long to realise
the Hape-Tindall partnership isn't working is nonsensical. Manu Tuilagi and
Tindall is no better. Tuilagi has only played half a Premiership season and he
will face far harder centres than Keith Earls, who's usually a winger. As for
Tindall he's injury prone and too inconsistent. So if that pairing doesn't
work, then what? He will have to play Hape but who with?

There are other doubts over the forwards
too. Johnson has chosen five props and an injured backrow captain in the shape
of Lewis Moody. In the Ireland
match there were just six scrums and England conceded 16 penalties,
mostly at the breakdown. The fifth prop, frankly looks like a luxury and
Johnson should have picked an extra backrow player instead.

England were too lopsided in the pack against Ireland, especially after Hendre
Fouire went off injured and Courtney Lawes had to play on the flank. Johnson's
team looked naïve at the breakdown which is a fatal problem as the team who
handles the breakdown the best will win the World Cup.

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