England stand-ins given chance to prove Six Nations suitability

Celebration match: England coach needs to keep options open in case some of his World Cup winners decide to stand down in near future
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The Independent Online

Einstein once revealed that he wasted very little of his precious time thinking about the future, for the very good reason that it would arrive soon enough. Clive Woodward does not have that luxury, because modern rugby moves a whole lot faster than modern physics - relatively speaking, of course - and makes a much bigger mess of a chap's career if he fails to get himself organised. Ask John Mitchell, who yesterday lost his job as New Zealand's national coach.

The 2004 Six Nations' Championship is less than two months away, and everyone will be gunning for Woodward and his world champions. As England face awkward trips to Rome and Edinburgh and an absolute beast of a match against the smarting French in Paris, the tournament was always likely to be a severe test of their credibility. The fact that the coach does not yet know precisely how many of his champions will make themselves available for the competition makes the prospect doubly challenging.

It may well be that all of them turn out for one last gallop around the great rugby capitals of Europe - Johnson, Back, Dawson, Greenwood, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. There again, three or four hardy annuals may decide that enough is enough. Hence Woodward's determination to make the most of this evening's "homecoming" fixture against a New Zealand Barbarians team almost as uncontaminated by star quality as Monty Python's famous cheese shop was by cheese. The coach may have described the match as a "hospital pass" - a reference to the tight restrictions governing his selection policy - but he fully intends to take something from the occasion.

If Johnson, for instance, knocks international rugby on the head - an unfortunate choice of phrase, given the captain's record, but you get the drift - Woodward needs to know that Simon Shaw of Wasps or Danny Grewcock of Bath are in optimum nick, both physically and mentally, for what is certain to be a demanding encounter with the Italian pack in mid-February. He will learn something of value on the subject today, for if the Baa-Baas are less than frightening in the front row and at half-back, they have two tough-nut locks in Troy Flavell and Simon Maling.

Woodward will also take special note of James Simpson-Daniel of Gloucester, who may well be playing better than any wing in the country, and Ollie Smith of Leicester, who, like Simpson-Daniel, was unfortunate to miss out on the big trip to Australia. Matt Stevens is another dynamic young player on the coach's checklist. Phil Vickery's lamentable injury record suggests he will miss at least one Six Nations match and possibly more, and with Julian White about to undergo surgical repairs on his knee, England need all the tight-head cover they can get.

Earlier this week, Woodward made two bold claims: firstly, that he would be happy to send today's line-up into a major Six Nations fixture (reasonable); and secondly, that this side would comfortably beat the Australians (arrant nonsense).

The England XV is blessed with two industrious flankers - one of whom, Richard Hill, is the uncelebrated and under-valued hero of this red-rose vintage - and some know-how at scrum-half and stand-off. They will also be quick, very quick, out wide. What they do not possess in any great measure is hardened international experience.

They will almost certainly win, but by how many? A wide margin of victory, spiked with free-running tries from the likes of Simpson-Daniel, would spare at least some of the blushes at the Rugby Football Union, where senior officials experienced enough to have known better shamelessly marketed this match as a "celebration" fixture - clearly a hint, if not a promise, that the big-name World Cup players would be on view. Now that the Johnsons and Backs and Dawsons and Dallaglios have opted to play real rugby as opposed to the exhibition variety, those responsible for arranging this ill-conceived bun-fight are praying for something sufficiently sensational to ease the sense of betrayal.

Theirs will not be the only hands clasped together. Graham Henry, the former Wales coach who beat Mitchell to the All Blacks appointment, will be hoping to see some flashes of inspiration from the odd Barbarian as he weighs up the talent at his disposal. A number of today's visitors could do themselves a power of good here, most notably Keith Lowen, the high-class centre from Waikato, and Tony Woodcock, the loose-head prop from Otago.

Henry will also be interested in the performance of Xavier Rush, the Auckland No 8, who is widely considered to be the most resourceful leader in New Zealand rugby. Rush, who led his provincial side to last season's national title, will not operate under the burden of captaincy this time - Taine Randell, who led the All Blacks in the 1999 World Cup and now plays his rugby at Saracens, has been appointed head boy - but if he stacks up against Hill, Martin Corry and Joe Worsley, it will not go unnoticed.

Neither will the after-match parade by the whole of England's World Cup squad. Judging by the adulatory hysteria in the streets of London a fortnight ago, the RFU could safely have scrapped the match and sold out the stadium on the strength of the lap of honour. It would have been more honest, that's for sure.