"We have not come here as Torville and Dean, and we're not looking for marks out of 10," Clive Woodward, the England coach, said in Manly yesterday. "We're here to win a game of rugby."
This was a relief to everyone, not least Mr Martin Johnson of Leicester, who spends precious little time practising his triple toe-loop and is rarely seen in tight trousers with sequins down each leg. Mind you, if Woodward makes many more changes to his first-choice team, we could yet see Robin Cousins in the second row.
Having spent many months and many thousands of pounds planning this World Cup campaign in detail so fine it is practically invisible to the naked eye, Woodward is now wielding the scalpel like a surgeon on piecework. Mike Tindall, one of the defensive linchpins of the team, is out on his ear; Jason Leonard, on the brink of a record-breaking 112th cap, has been demoted to the bench; Josh Lewsey, who spends half his time on the right wing and the other half on the physiotherapist's slab, has resurfaced at full-back; Richard Hill, the most accomplished blind-side flanker in the world, has been restored to the pack despite four long weeks of enforced inactivity.
The contrast with the French, who are spending their semi-final build-up a couple of nautical miles around the headland on Bondi beach, could hardly be more marked. While the Tricolores unhesitatingly named a side unchanged from their comprehensive quarter-final victory over Ireland in Melbourne, Woodward felt wholly unable to award a vote of confidence to a team that had the wits frightened out of them by Wales in Brisbane. He has tinkered with the tight five and the loose trio, with his centre partnership and his back three. Only the half-back axis remains intact. If it works, he will look very good indeed.
Mike Catt and Trevor Woodman were the principal beneficiaries of this late-in-the-day selection rethink, though in fairness to Woodward, both Lewsey and Hill have been part of his preferred combination for some time. Catt's inspired second-half contribution last weekend raised the possibility of a radical restructuring of the midfield, and while Tindall's fall from grace clearly weakens England in defensive terms, there was an obvious logic to Woodward's decision.
"I certainly don't see it as a gamble or a panic measure," he said. "For starters, I don't panic. Actually, I think it would have been a gamble had I not picked Catt for this game. This is not a slight on Tindall, who has done absolutely nothing wrong; it's just that Catt can play a variety of roles - first receiver, second receiver - and can pass brilliantly off both hands. With Lewsey in the side as a strike full-back, we'll need some width in our game. Against Wales, we were a little narrow."
So far, so persuasive. What he could not bring himself to say, however, was that Catt had effectively been installed as Jonny Wilkinson's minder - that Wilkinson's poor decision-making in open play had forced the installment of a second playmaker equipped to take the heat off the vice-captain, to introduce a little line and length to proceedings should the French threaten to knock England out of shape. Catt himself agreed that he might "freshen things up a little". While this was no condemnation of Wilkinson's form, it was an admission of something.
As ever, the front-row selection is profoundly complex. Woodman is an explosive sort - a thoroughly modern loose-head specialist, yet one boasting all the traditional attributes common to front-rowers schooled in the hard-knock academy of Gloucester RFC. His performances against New Zealand at Twickenham a year ago and against the Wallabies in June were those of a prop nearing the peak of his powers, and if his reputation suffered a minor dent at the hands of the Springboks in Perth last month, he remained a strong candidate for a place against the most formidable set-piece unit in the tournament.
It is the other side of the front row, the tight-head side, that gives rise to concern. Phil Vickery struggled badly against Christo Bezuidenhout when England played South Africa, just as he lost his bearings against the Wallabies during the Lions tour here in 2001. He does most things superbly, but his scrummaging can be distinctly average.
There must have been a huge temptation to run Julian White, an out-and-out scrummager, against the French, especially as Jean-Jacques Crenca has been causing seven shades of havoc every time he sets foot on the pitch.
White was considered, and at some length. But Woodward finally opted to go with Vickery for the simple, if rather questionable, reason that the West Countryman has not gone toe-to-toe with Crenca for two years and may just benefit from a degree of unfamiliarity. Those who believe White is better equipped to survive the intense scrummaging of the first 50 minutes, and that Vickery's value as an impact replacement borders on the priceless, will be shaking their heads in exasperation.
At least the coach sounded full of John Bull confidence, which contrasted sharply with the outright bull that passes for rugby comment in much of this country. Asked whether he was offended by the fact that Australians did not appear to mind who wins this World Cup, just so long as it is not England, he replied: "To be frank, I don't care what the Australians say. They should be worrying about the All Blacks, not us."
A good point, well made. He might have added that the Wallabies' decision to hole themselves up in their Coffs Harbour hideaway, rather than move into Sydney and help promote their own tournament with a public appearance or two, is little short of disgraceful. But Woodward is far too diplomatic to go down that road. That's why the Aussies love him so much.
ENGLAND: J Lewsey (Wasps); J Robinson (Sale), W Greenwood (Harlequins), M Catt (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton); T Woodman (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: D West (Leicester), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Corry (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), K Bracken (Saracens), M Tindall (Bath), I Balshaw (Bath).Reuse content