Nullifying the effect of Matt Giteau, one of the world’s finest players, is mandatory if England’s youthful team are to overcome a very experienced Australia side, writes Stuart Peel.
In one of my favourite pieces of commentary in recent years, as the Brumbies number 12 stepped off his right and scythed through the defence and under the sticks, the commentator purred ‘Aaww, are you any good Matt Giteau?’. It was of course a rhetorical question, the unspoken inference being, ‘yes, very’.
He’s probably better remembered on these shores for the ‘Welcome to the World Cup final, Matt Giteau’ moment in 2003 when on his first touch he found himself picked up and dumped 5 yards backwards by Jonny Wilkinson. If Wilko wasn’t such a modest, self-effacing chap it could almost have been interpreted as him saying ‘sorry mate, you’ve got a long way to go, I’m the man around here’.
Five years on and Giteau is very much the man now. He’s so good in fact that he would probably be first choice at 9, 10 and 12 in the Wallabies team. In a country with no shortage of backline talent, that is saying something. Now, it is he who is the target for young tens like Danny Cipriani who will be determined to make a mark against such an illustrious individual.
With England fielding such an inexperienced midfield and back 3 combination, Giteau will fancy this one and closing him down will be high priority for England. He has the bludgeon of Stirling Mortlock outside him to complement his rapier and England cannot afford to let them play.
The injury to Berrick Barnes may have rather upset the balance in Australia’s midfield, forcing Giteau and Mortlock to each move in one position. This could work in England’s favour as Mortlock is far more of a target man than a distributor, but he is a proven world-class player which does serve to illustrate the gulf in experience in key areas. The strength of England’s scrum compared to Australia’s has been well-documented but in the other key areas of the lineout, the breakdown and midfield control, it is advantage Australia on paper at present.
Stephen Moore has become an accomplished all round hooker, right up there with the best in the world while Lee Mears still has it all to do to make the shirt his own. Everyone knows about George Smith and England will have to negate his influence, as they will Burger and McCaw in the coming weeks, to compete in that area.
It is a tremendous opportunity for Tom Rees to step forward into the upper echelons of openside flankers and really translate the potential he has shown for some years into match-turning international performances. In the midfield, Flutey and Cipriani’s 7 caps face up to Giteau and Mortlock’s 126, just as George Smith’s 92 face Rees’ 11.
Experience is clearly no guarantee of success but it does bring an ability to understand precisely what needs to be done in any given situation. It brings patience and the confidence to not force matters. It is a demonstration of the fact that England will be coming up against proven campaigners in those crucial areas of the game in which they have to come out on top.
England need to show that numbers such as these count for nothing out on the pitch. It is a significant challenge and one which a group of players still finding their feet at international level should relish. The likes of Rees and Cipriani should earmark these games to put one over on their men and become marked men themselves. They have the potential to be just as good as their experienced opposite numbers. Saturday is the day to start proving it.