England's coaches made two ventures into Lewis Carroll territory yesterday, describing the scrummaging performance against South Africa last weekend as "outstanding" and acquitting Jonny Wilkinson on all charges relating to the unusually scratchy display behind the pack. If they were being genuinely up-front, as opposed to mischievous, the good people of Melbourne can soon expect to see a fully clothed rabbit glancing at its wristwatch before disappearing down a hole near Flinders Park.
The truth, of course, is that the red rose front row struggled to handle the iron strength of Christo Bezuidenhout at the set-piece, hence the selectors' decision to take a close look at Julian White, the strongest scrummager in the squad, against the dangerous islanders of Samoa this weekend.
White is part of an all-new combination featuring Jason Leonard at loose head - the grand old man from Barking must be nearing the 1,000-cap mark by now - and Mark Regan at hooker. The latter two would not expect to start a World Cup final tomorrow, but White must fancy his chances of pressurising Phil Vickery for the role of tight-head specialist.
As for Wilkinson, he played every bit as poorly with ball in hand as he had against the All Blacks in Wellington during the summer tour of the Antipodes. The fact that the Newcastle outside-half won both matches with his peerless goal-kicking is neither here nor there; he is out of nick and he knows it. Hence the decision of Clive Woodward and company to risk their prize asset against the notoriously physical Samoans, who will arm themselves with Brian Lima - a centre nicknamed "the chiropractor" because of his penchant for rearranging bones.
Woodward has made eight changes in all, one of them positional. Joe Worsley, very much a fringe figure thus far, gets a run at blind-side for two excellent reasons: Richard Hill's continuing hamstring problems and Lewis Moody's habit of conceding dumb penalties. Matt Dawson, fully recovered from the minor ailments that ruled him out of the Springbok match, returns at scrum-half for Kyran Bracken; Stuart Abbott wins a third cap in midfield as replacement for the unavailable Will Greenwood; and Iain Balshaw takes over from Josh Lewsey in the back three. Balshaw has been named on the right wing, with Jason Robinson at full-back, but nobody would die of shock if the roles were reversed.
Of the newcomers, Dawson is clearly a heavyweight contender for the latter stages of the tournament, while Abbott is an equally obvious back-up for Greenwood, who flew back to England last Sunday. If, as Woodward hopes, the influential Harlequins centre returns early next week - his wife, Caro, is said to be making good progress in hospital after difficulties with her second pregnancy - Abbott will resume his support role. "I'd like to think I had a genuine chance of challenging Will, but, realistically, he's playing too well," he said.
Balshaw is a very different case of potential. Woodward's admiration for the 24-year-old Lancastrian's natural attacking flair knows no bounds. He has been dropping the Bath player's name into selectorial conversation for weeks, and Balshaw might well have edged Lewsey out of the South Africa game had a niggling calf strain not cost him his place in the opening pool match with Georgia.
"He's pushing Josh very, very hard," the coach said, with considerable candour. "A back three of Balshaw, Robinson and Ben Cohen would be one of the stand-out combinations in the tournament. When Iain played against France in the last of the warm-up matches last month, I thought he looked something close to his best. I have no issues with his defence, and when he plays with quality people of the kind we have in this squad, he's as dangerous as anyone. This is a big opportunity for him to apply some pressure."
Assuming things go vaguely to plan on Sunday - and the Docklands Stadium, with its ever-controversial roof, will guarantee drier and more sympathetic conditions than those currently being experienced by the Victorian public - England will give the likes of Mike Catt, Paul Grayson, Andy Gomarsall, Dorian West and Martin Corry some meaningful action against Uruguay a week later. But another below-par attacking performance will provoke a strong reaction from the coaches.
When the players assess the videos for their post-mortems, they only bother with the bad bits. "The video session after the South Africa match was pretty long," Woodward said. Mike Tindall, the Bath centre, was more blunt: "Basically, they dished out a few bollockings."One of them may even have been aimed at our Jonny.
ENGLAND (v Samoa: Melbourne, 0930 Sunday): J Robinson (Sale); I Balshaw (Bath), S Abbott (Wasps), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), M Regan (Leeds), J White (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Corry (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), A Gomarsall (Gloucester), M Catt (Bath), D Luger (Perpignan).Reuse content