England’s senior players are struggling to understand the growing restlessness over their prospects for next autumn’s home World Cup.
“If we’re underperforming as gravely as people are making out after losing to the All Blacks and the Springboks by three-point margins, it will be interesting to see what happens when we get it right,” said the flanker Tom Wood, bristling with indignation.
But it may be that they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. If they mess up against the touring Wallabies this afternoon, the atmosphere surrounding them will become seriously negative.
Their next opponents are Wales at the Millennium Stadium in a supercharged Six Nations opener – and we all know what happened to Wood and his countrymen the last time they crossed the Severn Bridge on international business.
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
They must also travel to Dublin to face an Ireland side feeling extremely good about life after catapulting themselves into the top three of the global rankings with victories over South Africa and Australia. All things considered, then, England could use a win right now.
If, at least on the face of it, the gaps on the recent scoreboards appeared bridgeable, what about the gap in attacking ambition separating England from their visitors today?
It is routinely said of the Wallabies that they can score from anywhere and everywhere, and judging by the wondrous tries they put past the Irish in that fascinating game last weekend, there is no reason to dispute the point.
England are never spoken of in the same way. Their best chance here, it always seems, is to put the ball in front of their excellent tight forwards and squeeze the opposition until they go blue in the face.
Andy Farrell, the red-rose backs coach, insists his side are every bit as aspirational with ball in hand as the men in green and gold, and while he does not want to see England “committing suicide by trying to run the ball against a brick wall”, as he put it yesterday, he will not rest easy over Christmas unless the decision-making footballers outside the scrum take this chance to show some progress in mastering the art of rugby as well as the science.
Which is where Billy Twelvetrees comes in.
The Gloucester centre, starting for the first time since the strange affair in All Black country during the summer, has the range of skills required to unlock England’s attacking game: he can pass long off both hands, he can offload in contact, he can kick miles, he is big enough to get himself through the midfield crunch and he has the game management skills of an outside-half, being no stranger to the No 10 role. He is also, according to the red-rose hierarchy, an excellent communicator.
So what’s not to like? Simple. He has a wayward streak – a flaw that too often prevents him delivering the kind of 80-minute performance all Test coaches crave.
During his spell as England boss after the World Cup victory in 2003, Andy Robinson was fond of saying that he was far happier with a player who could find 85 per cent of the best of himself regularly than one who went from 95 per cent to 60 per cent in the space of a single game, or even a single move. What England require from Twelvetrees today is consistency, as well as creativity.
“This is a big chance for him,” said Stuart Lancaster, the head coach. And a big test, too, for both men.
Lancaster’s decision to dump Owen Farrell on the replacements’ bench was not taken lightly, and if England find themselves in need of the Saracens midfielder’s fire-and-ice aggression because the freshly minted playmaking combination of Twelvetrees and George Ford fails to function, Lancaster will be no nearer unravelling his most devilish selectorial knot than he was back in 2012, when he succeeded Martin Johnson at the head of red-rose affairs.
According to Andy Farrell, son Owen has reacted soundly to his demotion. “It’s been as you’d expect from a professional sportsman,” the coach said. “It’s the team that comes first, isn’t it?
“You don’t want people to accept that being dropped is the right thing, but you want them to play their full part in what’s going on. Owen has definitely done that and he’s prepared to contribute whatever is needed off the bench.”
With players as potent as Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale – terrific and troublesome in equal measure – listed among the Wallaby substitutes, it is not easy to see England winning the bench battle, however well the younger Farrell responds to this week’s painful indignity.
As ever against this opposition, the key lies with the tight-five forwards in the starting pack, who have the size, muscle, close-quarter expertise and collective willpower to limit the tourists’ possession to a bare minimum and cramp the style of the brilliant open-side flanker Michael Hooper, who was so influential when Australia last prevailed at Twickenham two years ago.
That said, the Wallabies are capable of winning Test matches on starvation rations. They have the world’s most exhilarating attacking full-back in Israel Folau, the game’s form scrum-half in Nick Phipps, a blossoming No 10 in Bernard Foley and limitless know-how in the outside centre role, courtesy of the “cap centurion” Adam Ashley-Cooper.
The tourists may have come up marginally short in Paris and Dublin over the last fortnight, but they will not be the least bit fazed by another visit to south-west London.
England’s pre-World Cup fixture list is now in single figures: five Six Nations matches and three midsummer warm-ups are all that will be left to them come close of play this afternoon.
As they simply cannot afford to diddle around in selection any longer, today is the day for a number of players – Ben Youngs at half-back, Dave Attwood at lock, Ben Morgan at No 8 – to stand up and make their pitch. And the man at the head of this particular queue is Twelvetrees. No pressure then.
THE BEST OF ENEMIES
Sydney, November 2003: Jonny Wilkinson’s nerveless drop goal in the rain, just 26 seconds from the end of an exhilarating final, secured the World Cup for Martin Johnson’s men, 20-17
Marseille, October 2007: Jonny was it again, kicking four penalties in a nail-biting 12-10 quarter-final win as England headed for a second successive World Cup final
Brisbane, June 1998: England suffered a humiliating 76-0 reverse on the “Tour from Hell” – a defeat that was seared on the memory of a 19-year-old Wilkinson
Twickenham, November 1991: Tony Daly’s try, converted by Michael Lynagh, was enough to see off England 12-6 in an excrutiatingly close World Cup final
Cape Town, June 1995: Four years later Rob Andrew earned revenge with a late drop goal to hand England a 25-22 victory and a World Cup semi-final berthReuse content