It will be rather more surprising if they contrive to lose to Wales this evening, having won every encounter in Cardiff since 1993 at something resembling a canter, but the possibility of an upset is nowhere near as far-fetched as it was two seasons ago, when they last ventured across the Severn Bridge on Six Nations Championship business.
Chris Jones of Sale, ditched by England half-way through the battering they received from New Zealand in Dunedin last June and not seriously considered for international activity since, will fill the gap on the blind side of the scrum, having been preferred to James Forrester of Gloucester, who remains on the bench, and Hugh Vyvyan of Saracens, who is back in Watford on club duty. England are confident Jones will stack up - "Great line-out jumper, incredible mobility," enthused the head coach, Andy
Robinson, yesterday - but they also know that this match represents a genuine test of their mettle.
Wales fancy themselves, and why wouldn't they? The autumn internationals confirmed the Red Dragonhood in their newly rediscovered spirit of adventure, which manifests itself in a free-flowing, rapid-fire style that suits the likes of Shane Williams and Dwayne Peel in the same way it suited Gerald Davies and Gareth Edwards.
Not that Williams and Peel have too much in common with their fabled predecessors; even by the stratospheric standards of Welsh hyperbole, parity would be a claim too far. But they are certainly playing some half-decent rugby these days, as the Springboks and All Blacks were made to realise in November.
It is a Lions year too, so there is no better time for those intent on swapping one red shirt for another come the summer - the likes of the adaptable prop Gethin Jenkins and the No 8 Michael Owen up front, of the fly-half Stephen Jones and his centre Gavin Henson in the back division - to get cracking.
Now that the English titans, the Johnsons and Dallaglios and Wilkinsons, are nowhere to be seen, none of the Welsh front-liners need feel overawed. This game is a straight contest, 15 against 15, on a playing field as flat as the proverbial pancake. The cards are unmarked, the dice unloaded. Whatever in-built advantages England enjoyed during the great days under Sir Clive Woodward were lost in the fog of superstaritis to which they succumbed this time last year.
As Woodward's successor, the admirably single-minded Robinson considers it his business to restore a sense of reality to the red-rose mix; indeed he has already done so, as the magnificent autumn victory over South Africa demonstrated.
True to his principles, he has chosen for this difficult match those players he believes are performing at the optimum, hence the sudden appearance of the 18-year-old Newcastle centre Mathew Tait in midfield. Yesterday, the coach was full of praise for Tait's contribution thus far, but flatly refused to say anything that might stoke the fires of the youngster's ego.
"All we want Mathew to do is perform as he does for Newcastle," Robinson said with a shrug, as though he were asking him to pop down to the shops for a pint of semi-skimmed. "He's an outstanding player, but he's under no pressure from us. He's in the side, so it's down to him at the end of the day. Anyway, it's about the team performance rather than this or that individual. If we get it right as a team, we'll win."
Winning begins in the front row, and the coach certainly expects his scrummagers to get their bit right. His opposite number, Mike Ruddock, has pointed the finger at the Leicester tight-head prop Julian White, questioning the legality of the aggressive Devonian's work at the set- piece.
Yesterday, Robinson responded, in no uncertain terms. "This comes up time and again," he said, testily, "but how many penalties do we concede at the scrum? Very few. Julian is an outstanding scrummager, as are Steve Thompson and Graham Rowntree. I think the Welsh are trying to destabilise us in that area because they're fearful."
It is patently true that there is no such thing as a Welsh White, so to speak. What is more, the home side do not possess a Thompson or a Danny Grewcock, and unless Robert Sidoli rediscovers some of the potency he brought to this fixture in 2003, they will not have a Ben Kay either.
England hold all the aces in the front five, even taking into account the sharp improvement in Jenkins' game on the loose-head of the Red Dragon scrum, and for all their willingness to back themselves with ball in hand, the home side will find it the devil's own job to secure sufficient amounts of ball to win the day.
Of course, things will be very different should England under-perform in the set-piece areas, for Wales have the midfield kicking game to press territorially. And who will be refereeing the scrums and line-outs? Why, none other than Steve Walsh of New Zealand, who dropped himself in the manure during the World Cup by losing his rag with Dave Reddin, the England fitness coach. Words were spoken on the touchline, water was squirted - yes, big bad Steve aimed the contents of a drinks bottle at an astonished Reddin - and disciplinary action was taken, albeit of the powder-puff variety.
Robinson was in no mood to cast his mind back to that night in Melbourne 14 months ago. "We have no problems with Steve," he said, with an end- of-story expression on his face. Nevertheless, he intended to establish one or two ground rules during his meeting with the referee yesterday afternoon. If any water is going to be squirted tonight, England would prefer it to be in a direction of their own choosing.
KEY BATTLES WHERE THE GAME WILL BE WON AND LOST
No half measures
Matt Dawson v Dwayne Peel
Peel is 100 per cent scrum-half material, quick around the base of the scrum and sharp-witted enough to take a mile when only an inch appears to be on offer. Dawson, on the other hand, is approximately 75 per cent scrum-half and
25 per cent television personality. Back in September, the England coach Andy Robinson decided that he was not interested in picking three-quarters of a rugby player and dropped Dawson from the squad. To his credit, the 32-year-old Wasp has responded in the grand style. If he neutralises Peel's running game today, a third Lions tour will be on the cards.
Top of the props
Gethin Jenkins v Julian White
Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, is worried about how much of an ogre White has become, which makes you wonder how Jenkins must feel. He, after all, is the man charged with holding the Red Dragon scrum together in the face of the Englishman's ferocity. This contest within a contest will be fascinating, not least because there is a strong possibility that both men will play for the Lions against the All Blacks in June. Not that Ruddock is
concerned with the events of the summer. He knows that if the Welsh scrum stays in one piece today, his side will be in with a shout.
MILLENNIUM STADIUM TEAMS
Kick-off 5.30pm today (Live BBC1)
G Thomas (Toulouse) 15 J Robinson (Sale, capt)
H Luscombe (N-G Dragons) 14 M Cueto (Sale)
T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues) 13 M Tait (Newcastle)
G Henson (N-S Ospreys) 12 J Noon (Newcastle)
S Williams (N-S Ospreys) 11 J Lewsey (Wasps)
S Jones (Clermont Auvergne) 10 C Hodgson (Sale)
D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets) 9 M Dawson (Wasps)
G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues) 1 G Rowntree (Leicester)
M Davies (Gloucester) 2 S Thompson (Northampton)
A Jones (N-S Ospreys) 3 J White (Leicester)
B Cockbain (N-S Ospreys) 4 D Grewcock (Bath)
R Sidoli (Cardiff Blues) 5 B Kay (Leicester)
D Jones (Llanelli Scarlets) 6 C Jones (Sale)
M Williams (Cardiff Blues) 7 A Hazell (Gloucester
M Owen (N-G Dragons) 8 J Worsley (Wasps)
Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand)
Replacements: R McBryde (Llanelli Scarlets); J Yapp (Cardiff Blues); J Thomas; R Jones (both N-S Ospreys); G Cooper; C Sweeney; K Morgan (all N-G Dragons).
Replacements: A Titterrell (Sale); P Vickery (Gloucester); S Borthwick (Bath), J Forrester (Gloucester); H Ellis (Leicester); O Barkley (Bath); B Cohen (Northampton).Reuse content