x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Wallabies back Baxter to scrum up trumps

England expecting to dominate the set-piece again against Australia but lock forward Nathan Sharpe is defiant.

Australia's Al Baxter in a training session in London.
Australia's Al Baxter in a training session in London.

LONDON // The Roman poet Ovid wrote his Epistulae Ex Ponto while he was in exile. It was a rather miserable collection of poems, but if you can wade through the heavy verse, you will come to the line, "though the strength is lacking, the willingness is commendable."

Wind forward some 2000 years, and those words resonate when you consider the 61-cap career of Al Baxter, the Australia prop, who is central to the Wallabies' chances of beating England this afternoon. England have won four of their last five encounters against Australia at Twickenham, and the foundation to those successes was the home side's dominance at the set-piece. Baxter has mixed memories of the stadium, having first appeared here in 2004, when Australia prevailed 21-19 in front of a crowd of 73,000.

A year later, it was painful to watch when Baxter first came up against Andrew Sheridan, England's man-mountain of a loose-head prop. Time and again, Sheridan ground him into the Twickenham turf, and such was the pressure exerted on Baxter, that he was sent to the sin-bin by referee Joel Jutge for collapsing the scrum. It was a similar story the last time these two teams met, on a balmy night in Marseille last year, when England's pack bulldozed a superior Wallabies side out of the World Cup in a quarter-final.

Baxter has been keen to stress that the Australian scrum has got better under the guidance of forward's coach Michael Foley, the former Wallaby hooker, who coached at English club Bath. "He [Foley] has put an emphasis on making scrummaging a legitimate contest as opposed to being just a re-start," Baxter said. England looked a completely different side last week in their first outing under their new coach Martin Johnson.

The 39-13 victory over the Pacific Islanders looked to usher in a new rugby philosophy, one that put more emphasis on pace and attacking intent. George Smith, the Australia flanker, was not fooled by last week's display though. "Look it's pretty early into Johnson's coaching career. Their strength is always their set-piece, we'll have to be on our best to combat that," he said. So Baxter will face another searching test against Sheridan today, but he will not be alone.

His pack leader, Nathan Sharpe, issued the rallying cry yesterday. "Al is ready to go," he declared. "He's not going to do it on his own. All his mates around him are going to help him." If only Ovid could have called on his friends so easily when faced with such adversity. griddle@thenational.ae