Until, that is, 1988, when Geoff Cooke played the boldest of hands. The gambler hit the jackpot, England won and the Will Carling era was born. As a direct response to that setback, the Wallabies gave their old guard a one-way ticket to the scrapheap, replaced them with a bunch of kids and went on to beat England in the 1991 World Cup Final.
It could go either way this afternoon and therein lies the fascination. An English victory would lend the new coach an air of authority to go alongside the energy, enterprise and enthusiasm he brought to the job. Defeat by a Wallaby side some way short of full throttle would have the opposite effect, especially with the All Blacks and the Springboks lurking around the next couple of corners.
"Look, this isn't a World Cup final," said the coach this week. "Had it been, I might have picked a different side. I can't honestly say that I'd have picked the same line-up had we been playing New Zealand.
"I want to win this game and I'm as passionate in my desire as any of the players but if we don't win I'm not going to lose a night's sleep. Whatever happens, we'll learn from the experience. It's the first step on the road to 1999, not the be-all and end-all."
Woodward can rest easy in the knowledge that by naming five debutants in a line-up every bit as radical as those of '84 and '88, he has caught the mood of the times. Even the manager Roger Uttley is reinventing himself as an ultra-modern baby boomer; the grizzled veteran of England's 1980 Grand Slam side and assistant coach of Carling's massively experienced and deeply conservative team of the early 1990s has thrown himself fully behind the new idealism.
"When we won the Slam, we had a pack containing umpteen England captains and more caps than anyone could be bothered to count," he said. "But the frustrating thing was that we were only brought together in the twilight of our careers. Within a year or two, the whole side had fallen apart through injury and retirement. We'd actually been around throughout the 1970s, but no one had put us all on the field at the same time. The idea behind this side is to get the form players together early and let them grow."
The only trouble with playing the long game is that the short game has a nasty habit of getting in the way. It is perfectly possible that Woodward is on to something special, that the likes of Matt Perry, Andy Long, Will Greenwood and Tony Diprose will form the spine of a side capable of mounting a realistic challenge for the Webb Ellis Trophy in two years' time. But to keep them together, the selectors need the oxygen of results. Given that the next four matches are against New Zealand (twice), South Africa and France in Paris, a win today is essential for morale.
Fortunately, the Wallabies are in no obvious shape to cuff the English youngsters around the ear and send them off to bed without their supper. Rod Macqueen, the Australian coach, is also feeling his way and although his back division is full of pace and know-how, he has been forced to rebuild his forward pack almost from scratch.
Macqueen and his squad have spent a thoroughly uncomfortable week on the wrong end of some spiteful Australian tongue-lashings. "Spineless", "gutless" and "soulless" were just some of the adjectives applied to the Wallabies' 18-16 reverse in Argentina last weekend.
Few recent Tests have been quite so difficult to call with any degree of confidence. If Jason Leonard, Martin Johnson and the new captain Lawrence Dallaglio punch their collective weight up front and take the game by the scruff of its neck, the youngsters outside should flourish. If, on the other hand, John Eales inspires his unsung pack by turning in one of his occasional unbelievable performances rather than his usual great one, the Wallabies possess the cutting edge to prevail. It could well go down to the wire.
ENGLAND v AUSTRALIA
M Perry Bath 15 S Larkman ACT
D Rees Sale 14 B Tune Queensland
W Greenwood Leicester 13 T Horan Queensland
P de Glanville Bath 12 P Howard ACT
A Adebayo Bath 11 J Roff ACT
M Catt Bath 10 E Flatley Queensland
K Bracken Saracens 9 G Gregan ACT
J Leonard Harlequins 1 R Harry NSW
A Long Bath 2 M Forley Queensland
W Green Wasps 3 A Blades NSW
M Johnson Leicester 4 J Langford ACT
G Archer Newcastle 5 J Eales Queensland, capt
L Dallaglio Wasps, capt 6 O Finegan ACT
A Diprose Saracens 8 W Ofenhengaue NSW
R Hill Saracens 7 B Robinson ACT
Substitutes: 16 P Grayson Substitutes: 16 M Hardy (NSW), 17 S
(Northampton), 17 A Healey (Leicester), G Payne (NSW), 18 A Heath (NSW), 18 G Rowntree (Leicester), 19 R 19 M Caputo (ACT), 20 M Cockbain
Cockerill (Leicester), 20 D Grewcock (Queensland), 21 D Wilson
(Leicester), 21 N Back (Leicester) (Queensland)
Referee: A Watson (SA). Kick-off: 2.0 (Sky Sports 1).Reuse content