Another autumn, another money spinning visit from the world champions as England find the concept of a structured season as elusive as a Grand Slam. However, once again Clive Woodward is presented with an opportunity for glorious atonement after the sweet chariot lost its wheels against Ireland in Dublin.
Twelve months ago Twickenham rejoiced at England's "breakthrough" victory over Australia when the boot of Iain Balshaw, the hand of Dan Luger and the eye of the video referee combined to produce the winning try in the last minute. An inordinate amount of blood, sweat and tears has been spilt since then and one of the prime victims has been Balshaw.
He will not be strutting his stuff next Saturday, Woodward belatedly recognising that the young Bath runner has run out of confidence since being sidelined during the Lions tour Down Under. The selection of Balshaw at full-back in the Six Nations climax against the Irish was another example of Woodward's idiosyncratic style of management, although he should not stand alone in the dock. Nobody is closer to Bath than Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton and yet any visitor to the Recreation Ground could have told Woodward that Balshaw was not ready for Dublin.
There was another error of judgement in the selection of Phil Greening at hooker. After dropping from number one to number four in half a match, the wayward Wasp has been informed that the reason for his demotion is that he "hadn't played enough games". Again, this was hardly a state secret.
With the fast-track conversion of rugby league's finest now de rigueur, the most intriguing introduction to the England autumn collection is that of Henry Paul, who was named in the squad following one appearance for Gloucester, and that in a facile win over Caerphilly. Woodward emphasised last week that he did not expect Paul to start any of the forthcoming internationals. The same policy was applied to Jason Robinson last season and his form, when he came off the bench, made his promotion irresistible.
Both Paul and Robinson come under the Austin Healey category of convertibles and it will be interesting, when the team is announced on Tuesday, to see who plays where.
Although Matt Perry should be the full- back it would come as no surprise if at some stage Woodward threw the No 15 jersey to Robinson. The decision to relieve Matt Dawson of the captaincy, with the explanation "we had to take into account the competitiveness of the scrum-half position", suggests Woodward is thinking of playing Healey at No 9. Light the blue touch paper and stand back.
This time last year Kyran Bracken was the choice at scrum-half while Healey, a dangerous man in more ways than one, was dropped from the team to face the Wallabies. In the event Ben Cohen's withdrawal allowed the Leicester Lip to appear on the right wing. After Joe Roff had easily beaten him to lay on a try for Matt Burke, Healey was replaced by Balshaw. That evening the Australian-baiter was dispatched from the team hotel by Martin Johnson to buy fish and chips for the entire squad. Presumably with lots of vinegar.
With Johnson not expected to return until England's match with South Africa on 24 November, the captaincy has been handed to his clubmate Neil Back. "He has vast international experience and plays in one of the key decision-making positions," Woodward said. True enough but Back will have enough on his plate dealing with George Smith, who kept the Leicester open-side quiet in the Lions tour, without having to marshal his forces.
Wales, who meet Argentina before tackling Tonga and Australia, had no option but to name Iestyn Harris in their squad. "Everyone has to be sensible but there is nothing I can do to quell all this hysteria surrounding Iestyn," Graham Henry said. This, of course, is on the back of Harris's record-breaking 31-point display for Cardiff against Glasgow in the Heineken Cup last weekend, a conversion of almost Damascus proportions.
"I'm sure Iestyn can handle it," Henry added. "He has captained Wales and his club at the highest levels of rugby league and he has been through the mill. That is an advantage for him. It was always our intention to fast-track him and he would have been involved in this squad no matter what, but the fact he has adapted so quickly is a huge plus for us."
After the woeful minus against Ireland in Cardiff, Henry needs all the pluses he can get. The return from injury of Scott Quinnell and the introduction of Anthony Sullivan, another league recruit, should make life a little easier but it is in his treatment of Harris – where and when to play the prodigy – that Henry's judgment will undergo the severest scrutiny.
After the Dublin hangover England were criticised for not playing a warm- up match. Wales made no such mistake before meeting Ireland, putting 80 points on Romania and look where that got them. A record defeat by the Irish, who had been as abysmal against Scotland at Murrayfield as they were committed against Wales and England.
Scotland host Tonga on Saturday without their captain Budge Pountney, who has failed to recover from a heavily bruised shoulder. The Scots, who also play Argentina and New Zealand this month, will be looking to build on the victory over Ireland, which at least enabled them to finish the longest Six Nations' Championship in history on a high note. As usual much will depend on the form of Gregor Townsend (had Henry been the coach of Scotland Townsend would be history) and again, as usual, the acid test for Ian McGeechan's foundations will come with the arrival of the All Blacks.
The same applies to Warren Gatland. Following his retreat from Edinburgh, the cry for the head of the New Zealander who coaches Ireland rose in a crescendo and yet within a month he was enjoying his finest hour and a half as the head of Wood, the boot of O'Gara and the fingers of Stringer condemned England to a recurring nightmare.
Ireland, who take on Samoa at Lansdowne Road a week today before meeting the All Blacks the following Saturday, have added four players to their party, Gary Longwell, the Ulster lock, and the threequarters Jeremy Staunton, Gordon D'Arcy and Jonathan Bell. Gatland finally has some strength in depth – not that it enhanced his selection against Scotland – and has managed to conjure two performances of note in a row. Now he must ensure that Ireland go into the game against New Zealand as complete no hopers. Anything else and the Irish cease to function.
South Africa play France in Paris on Saturday, and Italy in Genoa the following weekend before arriving at Twickenham. The French have suffered a marked decline since being Europe's leading standard bearers in the last World Cup and, typically, they have jettisoned some big names – Sadourny, Bernat-Salles, Benazzi – while including eight uncapped players in the squad for the Springbok Test.
Meanwhile, the Rugby Football Union has been toasting an exclusive five-year agreement with Bollinger, who will launch their association in Twickenham's West car park on Saturday. The Wallabies will give some indication of whether we are talking about the Brut strength of the England yeomen or Champagne Charlies. Either way the rare vintage will expect something more up market than fish and chips.Reuse content