England XV 17 Barbarians 14: Tait the only light in drab display on eve of England's tough tour

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The Independent Online

A Mexican wave after two minutes, a ribald ovation for a fully-clad pitch invader after 78 minutes and the world's first recorded instance of a crowd counting down the clock to half-time – yes, the England XV really captured the public's attention at Twickenham yesterday. They started their annual fixture with the Barbarians knowing that a 30-point victory was a minimum requirement, and won by three points. House prices are in better shape than the red rose army as they contemplate their forthcoming meetings with the All Blacks, who will just about have stopped laughing by the time the Auckland Test comes around.

By way of adding injury to insult, both Charlie Hodgson and Toby Flood were invalided out of the game. Hodgson's luck has been rotten for years and when he caught Jerry Collins full in the face late in the first half, things took another turn for the worse. Thirteen stitches later, he returned to the arena to watch the remainder of the game.

Flood was also smashed into oblivion by a hulking great back-rower from the southern hemisphere – Pedrie Wannenburg on this occasion. The Springbok No 8 wreaked all manner of havoc, and was by some distance the pick of the forwards on view, and had it not been for some characteristic broken-field brilliance from Mathew Tait, the Baa-Baas would have had the pick of the backs as well, in the formidable shape of Seilala Mapusua, their Samoan centre.

Mapusua could have won it single-handed. Ten minutes into the second period, he intercepted a pass from Chris Jones and stampeded upfield for a try. He then made a clean break that would have resulted in a score for Collins had Danny Care not brought the New Zealander to earth with a covering tackle, before seizing on another misdirected pass, this one from Luke Narraway, to threaten a third time.

Fortunately for the red rose team, the Barbarians barely won a line-out and therefore struggled to establish an attacking platform worthy of the name. By the time Gareth Thomas scored their second try, created by Morgan Turunui's cleverly disguised pass direct from a set-piece, the game was in its last minute.

The England selection was made by Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby, who is overseeing the transition from Brian Ashton, the man he sacked so brutally, to Martin Johnson, the man he appointed so eagerly. Both Hodgson and Flood will board the plane to New Zealand tomorrow – Andrew is confident both will be fit to face the All Blacks at Eden Park in 12 days' time – although a third midfielder, the Leicester centre Dan Hipkiss, is struggling. He too took a smack in the face, during the Premiership final on Saturday.

Not that Hipkiss is likely to be required for the first Test. Tait's performance, which featured an outside break of classical proportions in the first half and a fearless dump tackle on Wannenburg in the second, as well as a lovely side-stepping try that left Mapusua in an advanced state of bewilderment, propelled him back into the contest for the No 13 shirt.

There were few other redeeming features in this unimaginative, entirely witless performance. Dylan Hartley was hot enough in the loose, but the English scrummage looked more secure with David Paice at its fulcrum. Nick Easter? Laborious, despite his close-range try. Richard Wigglesworth? Scratchy. David Strettle? Anonymous. On paper, the summer tour squad looks stronger than for some years. Those who appeared on grass yesterday created a very different impression.

England XV: Tries Easter, Tait; Conversions Flood, Brown; Penalty Flood. Barbarians: Tries Mapusua, Thomas; Conversions Gomarsall, Jackson.

England XV: M Brown (Harlequins); T Ojo (London Irish), M Tait (Newcastle), T Flood (Newcastle), D Strettle (Harlequins); C Hodgson (Sale), R Wigglesworth (Sale); N Lloyd (Saracens), D Paice (London Irish), J Hobson (Bristol), C Jones (Sale), N Kennedy (London Irish), L Narraway (Gloucester), W Skinner (Harlequins), N Easter (Harlequins, capt). Replacements: P Richards (London Irish) for Hodgson, 35; D Care (Harlequins) for Wigglesworth, h-t; D Hartley (Northampton) for Paice, h-t; U Monye (Harlequins) for Flood, 62; S Hooper (Leeds) for Jones, 71; T Guest (Harlequins) for Narraway, 71; D Wilson (Newcastle) for Lloyd, 76.

Barbarians: T Delport (Worcester and South Africa); I Balshaw (Gloucester and England), M Turinui (Queensland Reds and Australia), S Mapusua (London Irish and Samoa), G Thomas (Cardiff Blues and Wales); S Larkham (unattached and Australia), A Gomarsall (Harlequins and England); F Puciariello (Munster and Italy), M Regan (Bristol and England, capt), C Visagie (Saracens and South Africa), K Chesney (Saracens), J Harrison (Ulster and Australia), J Collins (unattached and New Zealand), M Molitika (Cardiff Blues and Tonga), P Wannenburg (Blue Bulls and South Africa). Replacements: M Claassens (Bath and South Africa) for Gomarsall, 30-40 and 76; P Collazo (Gloucester and France) for Visagie, 57; S Dellape (Biarritz and Italy) for Chesney, 62; T Croft (ACT Brumbies and Australia) for Molitika, 62; G Jackson (Saracens) for Delport, 66; S Bruno (Sale and France) for Regan, 70; J Pretorius (Golden Lions and South Africa) for Larkham, 73.

Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).

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