The reigning world champions are under the distinct impression that Andy Farrell is not widely perceived as a great rugby union centre capable of erasing Danie Gerber from the game's collective memory or threatening Tim Horan's place in the midfield pantheon. "One of the hardest things for Andy at the moment is removing all the knives from his back," said Jason Robinson, his fellow traveller from rugby league, yesterday. It was an unusually sharp comment from Robinson, who suddenly felt obliged to defend his colleague's honour against the massed ranks of the non-believers. Clearly, tempers are beginning to fray ahead of this weekend's quarter-final with the Wallabies.
Those who argue that Farrell's most pressing problem is rather different – namely, to deliver a performance that might begin to justify his inclusion in England's squad for this World Cup – will watch him very closely on Saturday, for this latest opportunity may also be his last. Brian Ashton, the head coach, has recalled the 32-year-old dual international at the expense of Olly Barkley, whom he described as "one of our two best footballing backs" earlier in the tournament. It is a major decision, one that will finally establish whether or not Farrell was worth the hundreds of thousands of pounds thrown at him by Twickenham two and a half years ago.
It is also a harsh decision. Barkley did not exactly set the Seine on fire during the victory over Tonga in Paris six days ago, but he can be forgiven for reflecting dolefully on the slings and arrows of sporting fortune, not least because his display against the United States in Lens remains the best contribution by an Englishman in this tournament, leaving aside Tony Spreadbury's brilliant refereeing of the opening match between France and Argentina. The Bath player appears to have been demoted on account of his perceived defensive frailties. As a matter of fact, the individual who really struggled in the tackle against the Tongans went by the name of Wilkinson.
"We need the direct approach Farrell brings to the game," Ashton explained, reaching once again for the well-worn words "authority" and "leadership" to underpin his argument. "There won't be a problem with cohesion. Why? Because I have full confidence that Andy and Jonny Wilkinson will sit well together. Andy has taken a while in this World Cup to get himself to his current level, but now he's training day on day, he's getting better and better." Had he not been training day on day from the start of the tournament? "Not with the intensity he's showing now," the coach replied. It was an odd exchange, to be sure.
When the Australians reveal their hand today, few observers will collapse with shock. There has been some debate about the right-wing position, with the free-scoring Drew Mitchell under pressure from the ultra-reliable Adam Ashley-Cooper, but the starting XV largely picks itself. England's starting XV appears to unpick itself after every match. The coaches have made just the six changes on this occasion. Robinson's return to the full-back position sees Josh Lewsey shift to the left wing in place of Mark Cueto; Mark Regan is in at hooker for George Chuter; Phil Vickery is back at tight-head prop for Matt Stevens; Simon Shaw resumes his second-row partnership with Ben Kay at the expense of Steve Borthwick. Together with Farrell's selection, it amounts to a brand new team.
"It would have been better if I hadn't felt the need to make changes," Ashton conceded, "but a lot of these things have been forced on us, what with injuries and Phil Vickery's suspension. Does it concern me? Not at all. The changes made for this game are for the right reasons. It's good to have Robinson back – hand on heart, I thought we'd seen him for the last time when he picked up that hamstring problem against the Springboks – and I feel it's important to have our most experienced tight forwards on the field from the start in this game. It will be a massive battle area, and the alterations to the front row signify the emphasis we're placing on the scrum."
England should certainly have an advantage in that department, even though Stevens will feel a touch aggrieved at being relegated to the bench following his eye-catching effort against Tonga. Regan is the strongest scrummaging hooker in the squad – "Sometimes, I feel I'm in an armchair with this huge pack around me; sometimes I feel as though I'm on a settee," he said, as jovial as ever – and with Shaw's ballast coming through from the engine room, the Wallabies can expect a hard time of it.
None of this escaped the attention of John Connolly, the head coach of the Wallabies. "I think we've made some strides since Andrew Sheridan demolished our scrum at Twickenham in 2005, but I still put England's pack among the best in the game," he said. "It's a one-off match and they have a lot of the right ingredients – an incredibly strong tight-five unit, pace out wide, the Wilkinson factor. We're not looking too closely at their performances so far. Why? Because games against sides like Samoa and Tonga are different to games against more familiar opponents, who play the game in a more familiar way. As for the defeat by the Springboks – well, they were struggling at 10 and 12, weren't they?"
They were indeed. Wilk-inson and Barkley were injured, so Mike Catt was pressed into service at stand-off. And the inside centre position? That was filled by a chap called Farrell. Maybe this detail passed Connolly by. On second thoughts, maybe it didn't.
The men to face Australia
15 J Robinson (unatt)
14 P Sackey (Newcastle)
13 M Tait (Newcastle)
12 A Farrell (Saracens)
11 J Lewsey (Wasps)
10 J Wilkinson (Newc)
9 A Gomarsall (H'quins)
1 A Sheridan (Sale)
2 M Regan (Bristol)
3 P Vickery (Wasps, c)
4 S Shaw (Wasps)
5 B Kay (Leicester)
6 M Corry (Leicester)
7 L Moody (Leicester)
8 N Easter (Harlequins)
Replacements: 16 G Chuter (Leicester), 17 M Stevens (Bath), 18 L Dallaglio (Wasps), 19 J Worsley (Wasps), 20 P Richards (London Irish), 21 O Barkley (Bath), 22 D Hipkiss (Leicester).
Referee: A Rolland (Irl)
Kick-off: 2pm, Saturday, Marseilles. TV: Live ITV1Reuse content