The last game of the season will be the most difficult - the most testing Test imaginable, with the possible exception of a match against an angry All Black team at the House of Pain in Dunedin. Not only are a bruised England about to engage with an outsized set of Wallabies who hold the physical whip hand in the backs as well as the forwards, they find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea in terms of the psychology of the fixture.
Olly Barkley, the highly skilled and courageous midfielder from Bath, made this transparently clear after yesterday's training session in the heartland of Australian Rules football - a session in which many of the tour party's front-line individuals played a peripheral role, at best.
"We're a new team with new coaches, looking to build something for ourselves," Barkley said. "But confidence is everything in international sport, and we're not happy simply to build and lose. Personally, I'd rather win and not build."
It was a clear expression of impatience by a professional sportsman sick and tired of finishing second. Barkley did not participate in the Six Nations Championship, and therefore missed the defeats by Scotland, France and Ireland that left the world champions slumming it in the bottom half of the table. He felt the misery of it even so, and feels it still. Like the rest of the England side who started last weekend's opening Cook Cup Test in Sydney, he reached half-time happy in the knowledge that the game was there for the winning. The fact that the Wallabies scored three unanswered tries after the interval served to intensify the sense of desperation in red rose hearts.
There is a temptation to revert to English type - to close the mind to the attacking possibilities offered by the Tom Varndells, the Iain Balshaws, the Mathew Taits; to fall back on a more basic forward-dominated driving game. But England do not have their best driving forwards here. Andrew Sheridan and Matt Stevens are recovering from injury (in Stevens' case, a strained larynx as well as a ravaged shoulder); Steve Thompson and Danny Grewcock are on a beach, sunbathing away the effects of a 12-month route march that began with a Lions tour of New Zealand. And anyway, why employ a coach of Brian Ashton's stamp if they are to lose their nerve at the first sign of a setback?
"That's a fair point," Barkley conceded. "This is the start of something, the beginning of finding the right road through to the World Cup next year. And I think we can take some encouragement from the first-half performance in Sydney, when we had the run of play and asked most of the questions. The scoreboard had us on the end of a drubbing, but I don't think the game was really like that. We've been together only for a short period of time, so there are bound to be some grey areas in our performances."
Happily, Pat Sanderson is determined to ensure that England do not disappear in a fog of uncertainty come Saturday. "Our biggest problem last weekend was our lack of accuracy," the captain said. "We've talked about it. There have been no reprimands, but we've been honest with each other about our mistakes. No successful team can operate without honesty. There again, we did an awful lot of things well and we're not far off where we want to be. We hate losing and we're hurting at the moment. The beauty of the situation is that we have an opportunity to put it right."
England will name their side today, as will the Australians, who are unlikely to include Rocky Elsom, their new No 8 - news that will come as some relief to the tourists, given the impact the unusually substantial New South Wales Waratahs back-rower made on proceedings in Sydney. There again, his absence will almost certainly result in a recall for the outstanding Phil Waugh, one of the most resourceful flankers in world rugby. Ho-hum.Reuse content