Stuart Lancaster probably welcomed the storm that lashed the south of the country in the small hours of yesterday morning: when an England coach is desperate to douse the fires of expectation ahead of an important meeting with rivals as bitter as Australia, a full-scale deluge can only be a good thing. But Lancaster could pour an entire ocean’s worth of cold water on the red rose public’s hopes and dreams for this weekend’s set-to with the Wallabies and not make the slightest impact.
This uncomfortable fact did not stop him trying following the national squad’s training run at their country hotel base on the outskirts of Bagshot. “I think the Wallabies are improving massively in terms of their quality of performance,” he said. “Their last two games, against Argentina and the All Blacks, were right up there. We know they’re a threat. I don’t think we’ll be taking them for granted.”
His fear is that the wider rugby public – and, indeed, those “supporters” who somehow find a way of obtaining a Twickenham ticket despite being unable to differentiate between an outside centre and a cheeseburger – are doing just that. He also understands the temptation.
Australian union is in a bad place right now: injuries to some very important players, repeated outbreaks of rank indiscipline from others, howls of penury-driven anguish from an impoverished governing body, a poor run of results stretching back to the Lions series in the summer…these Wallabies are storm-tossed in more ways than one.
There was a wide variety of news on the England fitness front as the squad gathered for the build-up – some of it good, some of it bad, some it of fair to middling. Alex Corbisiero, the loose-head prop who demolished the Wallaby scrum in the final Lions Test and put a try past them for good measure, is definitely out of contention for this weekend because of knee trouble, although he may recover in time to play a part against Argentina on 9 November.
Two other denizens of the darkened recesses, the Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley and the Bath tight-head specialist David Wilson, are still struggling with ankle and calf issues respectively and were expected to miss today’s “live” scrummaging session – the only one of the week.
This is far from ideal. The new scrum laws, still in their early days, require the front-rowers to operate with a high level of unity and a common sense of purpose, which takes time to develop. The Wallabies have been together for weeks now. Hartley and Wilson have yet to pack down together at a single set-piece under the current protocols, even on the training field.
“Losing Corbisiero is a significant blow,” Lancaster admitted, talking of the most technically proficient of his scrummagers. But he went on to extol the virtues of the Saracens prop Mako Vunipola, who will start this weekend’s game. “The new laws suit him,” the coach argued. “I’m quite happy with our front-row situation. In each of the three positions, we have more than one player performing well.”
That assertion did not stop him returning to his theme of latent Wallaby danger. He took his audience back to events during the Lions series, when the Australian scrum rallied towards the end of the first Test in Brisbane and gave the full-back Kurtley Beale a shot to win the match, and also dominated at important moments during the second match in Melbourne – a game Vunipola might prefer to erase from the memory bank, despite the potency of his work around the field. “They are not to be underestimated in this regard,” Lancaster argued. “I don’t see it as a weakness for them.”
There are selection decisions to be made: Lancaster identified the back three, the centre pairing, the second-row axis and the scrum-half position as giving food for thought. However, it will be deeply surprising if the Harlequins full-back Mike Brown is not accompanied by the wings Chris Ashton and Marland Yarde; or if Joel Tomkins, the Saracens centre, does not make his Test debut alongside Billy Twelvetrees of Gloucester in midfield. As for the engine room situation, Courtney Lawes of Northampton and Geoff Parling of Leicester are the favourites for the starting slots.
At half-back, there is a proper choice to be made, thanks to the outstanding form of another Northampton man, Lee Dickson. He has already moved ahead of Danny Care in the No 9 pecking order: this much was clear when Care was made available for Quins’ league game with Sale at the weekend, while Dickson was held in camp. Has he also done enough to sneak past Ben Youngs of Leicester, who started the Melbourne Test for the Lions in June? It’s a tight call.
Once it is made, attitude will be everything. “Our mindset will be very important,” Lancaster said. “I never make bold declarations about targets for a particular programme of matches, but I’ve told the players that while there has been a lot of talk about the New Zealand game at the end of this series, the only game that matters is the first one. We have limited preparation time; the Wallabies have effectively been in camp since the Lions tour, albeit with a change of management over that period. We’ll have to be right on the money.”