It has taken the best part of three years, but the inevitable is finally upon us: England will play a full international match here this weekend without a single member of their World Cup-winning starting line-up in view, either on the field or on the bench. The moment Andy Robinson and his new coaching team decided to pick Louis Deacon and Alex Brown, boasting one cap between them, in the second row ahead of Ben Kay, 40 caps into a fading career that once seemed likely to earn him twice that number, the die was cast.
Kay, back in favour at Leicester after a rough run of form, must have travelled in the expectation of featuring this weekend. The Wallabies may be lacking in know-how in the front row of the scrum and less than sure about themselves in the back row, but they have two hardened Test locks in Nathan Sharpe and Daniel Vickerman - highly accomplished individuals who will set standards way beyond anything yet encountered by Deacon, who made his debut against Samoa last November, and Brown, who will be dipping his toe in international waters for the first time on Sunday. The selectors cannot be accused of taking the soft option.
There again, the entire team has an experimental feel to it. Olly Barkley and Mike Catt have been paired in midfield, at outside-half and inside centre respectively. At least, that is how it appears on the sheet. Rumour has it that Catt will spend much of his time performing the stand-off role in the kind of mix-and-match arrangement he once shared with Jonny Wilkinson. There is also some smart-arsery at work in the back row, where Magnus Lund, the open-side flanker from Sale who joins Brown in losing his Test cherry, is expected to play out of position on the blind side.
This much is certain: Peter Richards, an itinerant seven-a-side specialist currently earning his corn at Gloucester, has a heaven-sent opportunity to pitch for a run of games at scrum-half, perhaps the most troublesome of England's many problem positions. A 28-year-old survivor of the "tour from hell" in 1998, he played for London Irish, Harlequins, Bristol and Wasps before settling at Kingsholm, not always with the professional dedication his many and varied employers expected of him. He will have to be pretty damned dedicated here, for he will win his first cap against a certain George Gregan, who has accumulated 118 of the things.
"This is a golden opportunity," Richards said after confirmation of his selection. "This has been a long time in the coming, and it's true that for part of my career I had a cavalier attitude - not to my rugby, which I always took seriously, but to life in general. I understand my goals better than I once did, and I have a chance now to complete my return from the wilderness."
Robinson, the head coach, described Richards as "a real tough competitor". He will have to be, given the fathomless depths of his direct opponent's competitive desire. Again, this is a high-risk move. Having worked tirelessly on his distribution since arriving in Australia last week, Richards complained of a sore wrist and sat out yesterday's training.
Pat Sanderson, the captain, also missed out with a minor groin problem. But the big casualty was James Simpson-Daniel, the gifted but injury-prone Gloucester wing. Simpson-Daniel would certainly have started the game, but was forced to withdraw with a "dead" leg that required treatment at a local hospital.
As a result of his misfortune, Tom Varndell of Leicester finds himself in the starting combination. The 20-year-old rookie averages a try a game at club level, and duly scored on his one England appearance to date. This match is strictly for adults, though, and wings do not come more grown up than the exceptional Lote Tuqiri. If Varndell squares his personal argument on Sunday, it will be a triumph.
England (v Australia, Telstra Stadium, Sydney, Sunday): I Balshaw (Gloucester); T Varndell (Leicester), M Tait (Newcastle), M Catt (London Irish), T Voyce (Wasps); O Barkley (Bath), P Richards (Gloucester); G Rowntree (Leicester), L Mears (Bath), J White (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), A Brown (Gloucester), M Lund (Sale Sharks), L Moody (Leicester), P Sanderson (Worcester, capt). Replacements: G Chuter (Leicester), T Payne (Wasps), C Jones (Sale Sharks), J Worsley (Wasps), N Walshe (Bath), A Goode (Leicester), J Noon (Newcastle).
Scotland (v South Africa, Durban, Saturday 17 June): H Southwell (Edinburgh Gunners); C Paterson (Edinburgh Gunners), M Di Rollo (Edinburgh Gunners), A Henderson (Glasgow Warriors), S Lamont (Northampton Saints); D Parks (Glasgow Warriors), M Blair (Edinburgh Gunners); G Kerr (Leeds Tykes), S Lawson (Glasgow Warriors), B Douglas (Border Reivers), N Hines (Perpignan), S Murray (Edinburgh Gunners), J White (Sale Sharks, capt), A Hogg (Edinburgh Gunners), D Macfadyen (Glasgow Warriors). Replacements from: D Hall (Edinburgh Gunners), C Smith (Edinburgh Gunners), A Kellock (Edinburgh Gunners), J Petrie (Glasgow Warriors), K Brown (Border Reivers), S Pinder (Glasgow Warriors), G Ross (Leeds Tykes), S Webster (Edinburgh Gunners).
South Africa P Montgomery; A Snyman, J Fourie, J de Villiers, B Paulse; J van der Westhuyzen, F du Preez; J van Niekerk, J Smith, S Burger, V Matfield, D Rossouw, E Andrews, J Smit (capt), O du Randt. Replacements: H Shimange, L Sephaka, J Muller, P Wannenburg, E Januarie, W Olivier, G du Toit.
Wales (v Argentina, Puerto Madryn, Sunday): L Byrne (Ospreys); M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), J Robinson (Cardiff Blues), M Watkins (Llanelli Scarlets), S Williams (Ospreys); N Robinson (Cardiff Blues), M Phillips (Cardiff Blues); D Jones (Ospreys, capt), M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Newport Gwent Dragons), I Evans (Ospreys and Swansea), A-W Jones (Ospreys and Swansea), G Thomas (Llanelli Scarlets), A Popham (Llanelli Scarlets). Replacements: R Hibbard (Ospreys), R Thomas (Newport Gwent Dragons), J Yapp (Cardiff Blues), G Delve (Bath Rugby), A Williams (Bath Rugby), J Hook (Ospreys and Neath), C Czekaj (Cardiff Blues).Reuse content