Both Australia and England will look across the halfway line at Twickenham today and see a very similar side looking back at them.
Neither are at the peak of the world game – that is the preserve of New Zealand and South Africa – and both are at different stages of rebirth. At their best, both are quite brilliant, but both fail to find their best all too frequently.
It was personal scandal, rather than on-pitch failure, that caused Australia to initiate the revolution they are just beginning. There is no need to again go through the private difficulties that spelled the end for the previous coach Ewen McKenzie, though his team was underperforming on the pitch, too.
But the mood around the Wallabies team has been immediately transformed, and glimmers of change are showing on the pitch. Both teams will desperately want to win this match, and both will hate losing it. Consequently, the off-pitch sniping is in full swing.
This is Michael Cheika’s fourth game in charge of Australia, and he has met head-on suggestions that his team are “sneaky” and “not to be trusted”.
England starting line-up vs Australia
England starting line-up vs Australia
1/22 15. Mike Brown
Age: 29 Caps: 32 Tries: 6 Points: 30 Club: Harlequins
2/22 14. Anthony Watson
Age: 20 Caps: 3 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Bath
3/22 13. Brad Barritt
Age: 28 Caps: 21 Tries: 1 Points: 5 Club: Saracens
4/22 12. Billy Twelvetrees
Age: 26 Caps: 15 Tries: 3 Points: 15 Club: Gloucester
5/22 11. Jonny May
Age: 24 Caps: 10 Tries: 3 Points: 15 Club: Gloucester
6/22 10. George Ford
Age: 21 Caps: 5 Tries: 0 Conversions: 3 Penalties: 4 Points: 18 Club: Bath
7/22 9. Ben Youngs
Age: 25 Caps: 41 Tries: 6 Points: 30 Club: Leicester Tigers
8/22 1. Joe Marler
Age: 24 Caps: 25 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Harlequins
9/22 2. Dylan Hartley
Age: 28 Caps: 60 Tries: 1 Points: 5 Club: Northampton Saints
10/22 3. David Wilson
Age: 29 Caps: 40 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Bath
11/22 4. Dave Attwood
Age: 27 Caps: 15 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Bath
12/22 5. Courtney Lawes
Age: 25 Caps: 35 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Northampton Saints
13/22 6. Tom Wood
Age: 28 Caps: 33 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Northampton Saints
14/22 7. Chris Robshaw
Age: 28 Caps: 31 Tries: 2 Points: 10 Club: Harlequins
15/22 8. Ben Morgan
Age: 25 Caps: 24 Tries: 2 Points: 10 Club: Gloucester
16/22 16. Rob Webber
Age: 28 Caps: 9 Tries: 1 Points: 5 Club: Bath
17/22 17. Matt Mullan
Age: 27 Caps: 6 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Wasps
18/22 18. Kieran Brookes
Age: 24 Caps: 3 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Newcastle
19/22 19. George Kruis
Age: 24 Caps: 1 Tries: 0 Points: 0 Club: Saracens
20/22 20. James Haskell
Age: 29 Caps: 52 Tries: 4 Points: 20 Club: Wasps
21/22 22. Owen Farrell
Age: 23 Caps: 28 Tries: 2 Con: 35 Pens: 69 Drop-goals: 1 Points: 290 Club: Saracens
22/22 23. Marland Yarde
Age: 22 Caps: 6 Tries: 4 Points: 20 Club: Harlequins
England forward coach Graham Rowntree has called the Australians “canny”, with “tricks up their sleeves”.
This, for Cheika, is putting pressure on the referee, the sort of old-fashioned psychology that was long ago sussed out. “I’m sure they’re expecting to dominate us,” he said, at the team’s hotel. “All that talk about how we’re going to go for penalties is irrelevant at the end of the day. The referee will decide what he’s going to decide based on what he sees.
“I don’t think any referee is going to be influenced by Graham Rowntree saying we’re going to turn the scrum. They’re too smart for that. They do their homework, they watch the games,” said Cheika, whose side show three changes from that beaten by Ireland last week. Adam Ashley-Cooper moves from wing to outside-centre in place of the injured Tevita Kuridrani. Rob Horne starts on the wing and Sean McMahon returns as blind-side flanker
The teams are very evenly matched, though England’s forwards are more powerful, if not by much, and Australia’s back line slightly more dynamic. Cheika’s philosophy bears this out.
“Our goal at the scrum is to get the ball so we can attack. I don’t think we can win the game by just getting penalties. Maybe I’m naive. I think that tries help you win games.
“Our goal when we go into a scrum is to have clean ball so we can attack. We’ve got great backs who want to run, so that’s how we see the scrum.
“Maybe that’s why we’re criticised for it, because we want to attack from it, but we’re certainly not playing the scrum to get a penalty. Why would we? So we can kick the ball out and get a line-out? Let’s get the ball, there and then, and play with it. That’s an attitude I’ve always had as a coach, and I want to keep it that way.”
The match will be the first international fixture for any Australia team since the death of cricketer Phil Hughes on Wednesday night. It will begin with a minute’s applause. It will be a highly emotionally charged occasion.
“I’d never met Phil but when I heard about it I cried,” Cheika said. “There’s something that touches you about it, how unfortunate it is.
“It brings home that how you’ve got to enjoy things as much as possible because no one expects that to happen on a cricket field. I’ve seen many of the messages from English cricketers and I suppose it’s testament to the guy, player and person that he’s so widely respected. When that has an effect on people who only know him from afar that means something.”
But the coach does not expect his players to be especially fired up by such a tragic event.
“I don’t think that’s even fitting,” Cheika said. “It’s not something we want to try to use. It’s simple, we just want to show respect to the family and make people remember the man for another moment.
“I just want something to happen so that his family back home know that we care and support them and I’m sure everyone in Australia is supporting them.
“It’s about empathising with the family showing our support, because that can help in times of mourning, and remembering that person for those moments.”Reuse content