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By CHRIS HEWETT

Five years ago, Clive Woodward's England arrived in New Zealand off the back of a 76-0 loss to the Wallabies.

They were handsomely equipped with a third-choice back row, a fourth-choice centre pairing, an umpteenth-choice halfback and a teenager at first five-eighths by the name of Jonny Wilkinson, who had just suffered the torments of hell in Brisbane and suddenly looked a long way short of puberty.

The tourists leaked 64 points in Dunedin, a further 40 at Eden Park and were laughed off the pitch in Rotorua. And now they are back.

Will they be worth the price of a ticket this time? Definitely. As Woodward pointed out last week, the comparison between 2003 and 1998 is zero.

"Everything has changed dramatically for the better since '98," said the coach. "We've had a good autumn [three tests against the Southern Hemisphere superpowers, three victories] and a good Six Nations [the Grand Slam, no less]. It might have been tempting to leave a dozen or so good people behind, because we are at the end of a very long season.

"But we'd have been letting everyone down. I said 'never again' five years ago, and I meant it. There are very good reasons why we are looking forward to the Wellington test, and anyway, it's the game the world wants to see."

If Woodward could pick his optimum run-on team right now, 14 of those in the tour party would feature. The exception is Lewis Moody, the energetic flanker from Leicester, who broke into the senior side in November but has been injured ever since. His absence is significant, but not that significant; England will almost certainly field the familiar trio of Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio in the test, and with Hill in his prime and Dallaglio playing his best rugby since the 1997 Lions victory over the Springboks, this department is the least of Woodward's worries.

There is strength in depth at lock, despite Danny Grewcock's suspension following a red card in the Challenge Cup final - European club rugby's second-tier tournament.

The ever-popular Martin Johnson will captain the team, Ben Kay will almost certainly be alongside him, and the back-up force includes Simon Shaw, as gigantic as they come, and two specialist lineout burglars in Steve Borthwick and Tom Palmer.

Outside the scrum, all are present and correct: Dawson and Bracken, Greenwood and Tindall, Luger, Cohen, Balshaw, Robinson, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all.

Ever the optimist, Woodward is genuinely bullish about a first English victory in New Zealand in more than 30 years.

He feels he knows what makes John Mitchell tick, and how his old mucker will approach the game - fair enough, given their close working relationship at Twickenham between 1997 and 2000 - and he believes his side can hurt the All Blacks where they still appear, to European eyes at least, a little fragile: up there at the sharp end, in the tight five.

To Woodward's mind, New Zealand do not possess a Johnson or a Phil Vickery or a Steve Thompson. He, and the rest of us, are about to find out.

More than anything, Woodward understands that a win in New Zealand would underpin England's claim to World Cup favouritism.

A strong performance in Wellington, and another in Melbourne a week later, would send out the right signals and worry the right people.

Two defeats, on the other hand, might convince the South Africans that it is just about possible to turn round the 50-point pasting they copped on a humiliating day in London before Christmas.

England's prospects are entirely wrapped up in that one World Cup game against the Boks in Perth on October 18, and this trip to New Zealand is the first act in the build-up. It should be fun.

* Chris Hewett is rugby writer for the London Independent.