England must scale heights to deny Wallabies

World champions target missing piece of silverware against much-changed red rose team intent on springing big surprise
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Judging by England's overall record against the Wallabies in the four years since the Cook Cup was first handed to the winning captain, the trophy was named after the comedian, Peter, rather than the seafarer, James.

There was plenty of black humour flying around when Australia ran down the curtain on Jack Rowell's career as a national coach in 1997, and the whole of Queensland almost died laughing when the red rose army leaked 76 points in Brisbane the following summer. "The greatest sell-out since Gallipoli," was how Dick McGruther, the chairman of the Australian Rugby Union, described it.

How perverse, then, that the Wallabies should pitch up at Twickenham this afternoon in search of the solitary piece of silverware missing from the grand ballroom that doubles as their treasure chest. "They have every trophy in their cabinet, except the one we've got," said Clive Woodward, the England coach, yesterday. "I reckon that makes this a good game." And a meaningful one, too. The world champions may be within touching distance of an eight-week rest, but there is no suggestion of an end-of-season runaround about today's contest.

Indeed, there will be more steel and resolve about these tourists that they habitually bring to London – and that is saying something, given that their defeat at Twickenham last season was far from decisive. Having arrived without George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, they took an in-form England side to the brink of the precipice before conceding an 89th-minute try with two men in the sin-bin. Australian teams are unused to handing over trophies they consider to be private property, so the circumstances of that reverse annoyed them, and annoys them still.

Besides, Gregan's Wallabies are very different in mood and mindset than the Wallabies of the John Eales era. The Eales-Gregan partnership was a classic "nice cop, nasty cop" routine. Now that Gregan has David Giffin, the aggressive ACT Brumbies lock, as one of his two vice-captains – Daniel Herbert, the Queensland centre, is the other – we are in "nasty cop, nastier cop" territory. Eddie Jones, the coach, has detected a toughening of attitude. "George is a hard bloke," he said of his skipper. "He's hard on himself and hard on his team. He demands high performance."

England, on the other hand, appear fragile. This is a sudden and wholly unexpected development: as recently as last April, when they ran rings around a dangerously adventurous French team in a Six Nations match full of dash and devil, they looked as solid and imposing as Scafell Pike. One Lions summer and a Dublin defeat later, they are back in flux. When Woodward delivered one of his classic one-liners yesterday – "I haven't over-reacted to the Ireland match, apart from making 10 changes and switching captains" – there was a hint of gallows humour in his voice.

Which is not to suggest that Woodward is unsure of his own selection. "There is no experimentation going on and I don't see this team as a gamble," he insisted. "I've chosen the best 15 players available to me, the players who are in form. If the Wallabies look at Jason Robinson at full-back and decide he's a weakness, they'll have a go at him. I don't think he is a weakness, obviously.

"Yes, there are changes – and I'll make more changes for the next two games, against Romania and South Africa, if someone is playing better than the man in possession. But English rugby should feel good about itself, since we've lost only one game in 12. That game was the last one we played, unfortunately, and it has clouded the issue."

Yet the fact remains that an England without Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio is only half an England, in the same way that the absence of Gregan and Larkham resulted in half an Australia playing here this time last year. Woodward has a vision of a red rose squad boasting 30 world-class players of equal ability, but no nation – not Australia, not New Zealand, not South Africa – has ever come within hollering distance of that ideal. Ben Kay for Johnson? Joe Worsley for Dallaglio? The newcomers may play out of their respective skins this afternoon, but they cannot be expected to bring 109 caps' worth of know-how to the mix.

Victory is not beyond England today – they have not lost at home since the All Blacks Lomu'd them into submission in the pool stage of the 1999 World Cup – but it is unlikely. These Wallabies are the finished article as near as damnit, and for some of their number, notably the hooker Michael Foley and the flanker Owen Finegan, Twickenham may not come around again. They have unfinished business to address, and they expect to achieve closure.