It is some considerable while since Rob Andrew took an active role in coaching – he has spent the last couple of years doing the Rugby Football Union's dirty work in both the political and human resources arenas. Few will notice tomorrow, when the elite rugby director's England XV take on a Barbarians side of questionable strength at Twickenham, but when Andrew and his charges set foot in All Black country next week, things will become much more interesting.
If England fail to beat the invitation side by 30 points or more, the New Zealanders will double up laughing. The Baa-Baas, seduced by the money and the free beer rather than the remote prospect of playing the rugby of the gods, were none too impressive in losing to a ho-hum Ireland team at Kingsholm on Tuesday night, and while the selectors have picked a stronger side for this game expectations cannot be high.
Two-thirds of the front row are no longer first choices at club level; the marvellous Wallaby outside-half Stephen Larkham has been in semi-retirement and is injured anyway; the likes of Thinus Delport, Gareth Thomas, Cobus Visagie and Justin Harrison are long past it in Test terms.
There will, admittedly, be considerable interest in the performance of the tempestuous New Zealand flanker Jerry Collins, whose decision to walk away from international rugby at 27 has provoked much wailing and gnashing of teeth among his countrymen. Collins has been linked with a number of top-drawer European clubs, but has yet to decide whether he wants to continue playing at all.
"Everything is speculation," he said yesterday. "I haven't had a formal offer from anyone; I haven't sat down with anyone or gone through anything. I'm not going to jump straight into the next thing and tie myself up. I've come over here just to turn out for the Barbarians, and I've even left my mobile phone at home so I can concentrate on enjoying playing with these guys. I suppose I'll have a few missed calls when I get back."
For all the kerfuffle over Collins – his presence alone will make the Baa-Baas worth watching – the chances of a proper game of rugby breaking out are slim indeed. The England selection is nowhere near the optimum, what with the proximity of today's Premiership final between Leicester and Wasps and the breather granted to the Bath contingent following last weekend's victory in the European Challenge Cup. Still, Andrew will be bitterly disappointed if his side, chosen without significant input from an otherwise engaged Martin Johnson, show even the remotest sign of struggling.
The half-back pairing of Richard Wigglesworth and Charlie Hodgson will probably stay intact for the opening Test against the All Blacks in Auckland a fortnight today, and there is a good deal of know-how at centre, where the Newcastle pairing of Mathew Tait and Toby Flood join forces once more before heading their separate ways – the former to Sale, the latter to Leicester (or so it is widely assumed). Between them, that little lot should have the game won by the interval.
They will certainly see some ball. As John Wells, the forwards coach, pointed out this week, the pack is divided between those who will head for New Zealand with Test ambitions – the hooker David Paice, the prop Jason Hobson, the lock Nick Kennedy, the loose forwards Luke Narraway and Nick Easter – and those who are thoroughly hacked off at not being given the chance to do something similar
Of the second bunch, the Sale line-out specialist Chris Jones is perhaps the most intriguing. This time last year, he travelled to South Africa with a place in the World Cup squad there for the grasping. A fumble, an interception pass and various other outbreaks of hare-brained indiscipline in Bloemfontein put paid to that idea and he has barely registered on the radar since. This is his shot at redemption.
Dear old Mark Regan, who performed rather better against the Springboks and found himself in the thick of the World Cup action as a result, will lead the Baa-Baas. Ever the optimist, the thirtysomething hooker from Bristol says he is still available for international duty.
"I retired once, in 2004, and I'm not doing it again," he said. "I won't pack in now until I stop playing altogether, and I have another year on my club contract."
Regan has about as much chance of a recall as the Baa-Baas have of winning this game, which is nothing more than a money-maker for players and union alike. As long as this is understood by those who shell out to watch it, all well and good. If the punters want some serious rugby, flights to New Zealand are still available.
Tomorrow's Twickenham teams
15 M Brown (Harlequins)
14 T Ojo (London Irish)
13 M Tait (Newcastle)
12 T Flood (Newcastle)
11 D Strettle (Harlequins)
10 C Hodgson (Sale)
9 R Wigglesworth (Sale)
1 N Lloyd (Saracens)
2 D Paice (London Irish)
3 J Hobson (Bristol)
4 C Jones (Sale)
5 N Kennedy (London Irish)
6 L Narraway (Gloucester)
7 W Skinner (Harlequins)
8 N Easter (Harlequins, capt)
Replacements: 16 D Hartley (Northampton), 17 D Wilson (Newcastle), 18 S Hooper (Leeds),
19 T Guest, 20 D Care (both Harlequins), 21 P Richards (London Irish), 22 U Monye (Harlequins).
15 T Delport (Worcester)
14 G Thomas (Cardiff Blues)
13 M Turinui (Queensland)
12 S Mapusua (London Irish)
11 I Balshaw (Gloucester)
10 S Larkham (unattached)
9 A Gomarsall (Harlequins)
1 F Pucciarello (Munster)
2 M Regan (Bristol, capt)
3 C Visagie (Saracens)
4 K Chesney (Saracens)
5 J Harrison (Ulster)
6 J Collins (unattached)
7 M Molitika (Cardiff Blues)
8 P Wannenburg (Blue Bulls)
Replacements: 16 S Bruno (Sale), 17 P Collazo (Gloucester), 18 S Dellape (Biarritz), 19 D Croft (ACT Brumbies), 20 M Claassens (Bath), 21 G Jackson (Saracens), 22 J Pretorius (Golden Lions).
Referee: G Clancy (Irl)
Kick-off: 3pm (Sky Sports 1)Reuse content