The Wallabies have pulled this stunt before. Six years ago, when the worst-prepared England team in living memory surfaced in Sydney for the inaugural Cook Cup Test, Tim Horan moved from inside centre to outside-half, gave the visitors all manner of grief and guided his country to an embarrassingly stress-free victory. It marked the end of Jack Rowell's run as national coach, and slammed the door on Phil de Glanville's captaincy, too.
In 1999, it happened a second time. Steve Larkham's fitness problems left Rod Macqueen, the brilliant Wallaby coach, without a stand-off to call his own, so Horan shifted position once again and threw a spanner in the English works by shaping a four-try victory at Stadium Australia. Four years on, and guess what? The world champions are short of a 10, thanks to Larkham's physical fragility and Matt Giteau's fitness problems and Elton Flatley's latest disciplinary blip. Nathan Grey, a career centre with a big tackling game and notoriously sharp elbows, will fill the pivot position on Saturday.
Grey is no Horan, that's for sure. While the latter can be counted among the most complete footballers of the last 25 years, the former has muddled along in relative anonymity. But the England boys know him of old, not least because he was implicated in the single most significant moment of the 2001 Lions tour - a moment that occurred in this very city, shortly before half-time in a second Test the visitors were dominating almost as comprehensively as they had dominated the first.
Richard Hill, the Saracens flanker, was turning in a performance of Olympian quality when Grey caught him off the ball, elbow to face, as the Lions mounted what might have been a series-clinching attack. Hill was invalided out of the tour and his team's chances disappeared with him. Phil Larder, the Lions' defensive coach, described Grey's act as one of the most cynical he had witnessed, and tapes of the incident did little to establish Grey's innocence. By the end of the series, Grey was there alongside Justin Harrison and Duncan McRae in the Hall of Blame.
"I didn't realise I'd caused such a stink until they started screening behind-the-scenes film of the tour on TV here," he said yesterday. "It was an unfortunate thing, for sure, but there was no intent on my part. I certainly don't get excited at the thought of knocking someone cold and seeing him carted off the field. It's not a thing any rugby player wants to see happen to an opponent, no matter how tough the game might be."
It is, nevertheless, a fact that Grey thrives in the full-on, no-prisoners environment. He is a hard nut, one of the hardest in the Wallaby squad. Renowned for a work ethic the size of his native New South Wales, the 28-year-old midfielder has 32 caps to his name - nowhere near the totals of Horan (80), Jason Little (75) or Daniel Herbert (67), but a highly respectable tally for a midfielder blessed with strengths rather than gifts. He has three Wallaby tours behind him and has played more than 60 Super 12 matches for the Waratahs. In other words, he knows his way around the block.
Flatley's one-match ban, imposed following the Queenslander's decision to stay in bed rather than attend a compulsory recovery session after the victory over Wales in Sydney last weekend, has given Grey an opportunity he feared might not arise this side of the Tri-Nations tournament in mid-July.
He needed reconstructive surgery on his right knee in 2002, the result of a serious injury suffered in a Super 12 game against the Wellington Hurricanes, and has not played much since. In his absence, the likes of Giteau and Steve Kefu made their pitch for preferment and gave the current coach, Eddie Jones, a fresh range of options.
"This situation is tough on Elton," Grey said, with genuine sincerity. "But complete discipline is part of the core identity of this Wallaby squad, and the action taken against him has reinforced that fact. I was brought into Test rugby by Rod Macqueen, who was an extraordinarily organised and focused coach, and that attention to detail has continued under Eddie, who is, if anything, even more meticulous. Every individual is under an obligation to recognise his responsibilities."
Grey has mixed it with England on four occasions since 1998 and spent 40 minutes at outside-half in the 2000 Test at Twickenham. But for all his recent training as back-up to Flatley, the stand-off position is unfamiliar to him. "I've played three or four club games at 10 for Manly, and I remember playing a Super 12 match there for the Waratahs against the Sharks in Durban, but that's about it," he admitted. "I don't suppose I've done too much in that position since that game in London two and a half years ago, and the thought of fronting up against Jonny Wilkinson, who is the obvious benchmark player, is challenging, to say the least.
"But then, England are a challenging proposition full stop. Individually, I'd say the Lions were the more gifted team; collectively, England are streets ahead. They have evolved over six years with the same coach and, generally, the same group of players. They have good habits, great familiarity and, since the last World Cup, enormous confidence. They will be difficult to beat, for sure."
Having expressed reservations over the new centre partnership of Kefu, younger brother of the world-class No 8 Toutai, and the inexperienced Morgan Turinui, Jones has decided against tinkering with his threequarter combination.
He might have recalled Matthew Burke, a World Cup winner in 1999, or given Mat Rogers, who won 11 rugby league caps for the Kangaroos before jumping ship, an opportunity at outside centre. Either move would have given Grey some added security. As it is, the outside-half will have to run the show his way. If he makes a decent fist of it despite the attentions of a certain Richard Hill, who may feel the need to make a point or two, the Wallabies will owe him a debt of gratitude.
AUSTRALIA (v England, Telstra Dome, Melbourne, Sat 10.30am BST): C Latham; W Sailor, M Turinui, S Kefu, J Roff; N Grey, G Gregan (captain); B Young, J Paul, P Noriega, D Giffin, N Sharpe, D Lyons, P Waugh, T Kefu. Replacements: B Cannon, B Darwin, D Vickerman, D Heenan, C Whitaker, M Rogers, L Tuqiri.
ENGLAND: J Lewsey; J Robinson, W Greenwood, M Tindall, B Cohen; J Wilkinson, K Bracken; T Woodman, S Thompson, P Vickery, M Johnson (captain), B Kay, R Hill, N Back, L Dallaglio. Replacements: M Regan, J Leonard, S Borthwick, J Worsley, M Dawson, A King, D Luger.
Referee: D McHugh (Irl).Reuse content