England injuries promise a close encounter

JUDGING by Clive Woodward’s look of thunder it was just as well the Channel 7 cameraman was filming from the open door of a hovering helicopter.

Any closer and he might have joined Matt Dawson and Richard Hill on the injury list which has marred England's preparations for today's match against South Africa.

The same might be said for the crews from Channel 9, Channel 10 and ABC who also turned up at England's Hale School training base on the outskirts of Perth yesterday, and pointed their long lenses through the perimeter fence at Martin Johnson.

The word, misinformed as it happens, was that Prince Harry was on his way to wish the team good luck.

And while the ensuing pantomime might have little bearing on whether England beat the Springboks to ensure the smoothest of routes to the World Cup final, it was a pretty accurate gauge of the tension which has been building all week in the England camp.

How else can we interpret the decision to trundle the England team bus over the school playing fields and position it between the cameras and the players doing their warm-up routines?

What other sporting team would then dispatch security guards in vans to the same perimeter fence to move in unison with the camera crews, either side of the coach, in some demented synchronised waltz?

For their sake, it is hoped the England team's blocking manoeuvres are a good deal more sophisticated today, though Woodward must have some pretty tasty moves in store for the Springboks to engineer such farcical attempts at concealment.

When the England coach returned to the calm surroundings of the team hotel he described the run-in with the Aussie media as "a bit of amusement" which did not tally with either his demeanour or the frantic activity and denied that Prince Harry was ever scheduled to meet the players.

"I know we have got injury problems but we're not quite that bad," he joked. "There were cameras on the road and they made it very clear that they wanted to film the whole session and that is not good news in what we are trying to do."

What England must do at 1pm Irish time is win a match which is rapidly becoming rugby's equivalent of the 'Rumble in the Jungle' or the 'Thriller in Manilla'.

The Springboks have been relaxed, coach Rudi Straeuli joking with reporters, the twinkle in his eye saying how much he is relishing the chance to take on England and rectify the humiliation and shame of that 53-3 defeat at Twickenham last November.

By contrast, Johnson's press conferences have resembled the days of Geoff Boycott on a slow dead pitch, stonewalling straight deliveries with unwarranted suspicion, desperate to give nothing away lest he compromise the side's fortress mentality.

"Teams don't get intimidated by foul play," says Johnson. "Teams get intimidated by good, tough and fast rugby. The Springboks are perfectly capable of intimidating teams with their defence. This game's about winning, not about who can do what to who."

Despite England's brave face, preparation since the Georgia game has been desperate, with Dawson, whose snap and tenacity will be sorely missed, finally succumbing to his hamstring injury and Kyran Bracken's spasm-prone back disrupting his training.

The absence of Hill also robs Woodward of a quiet but vital heartbeat of his team.

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