There is no reason to doubt that Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and the other members of England’s 2003 World Cup winning team will be greeted with anything other than the warmest rapture when they parade around Twickenham at half-time of next Saturday’s match with Australia. But what state will the present-day England be in at that point?
Striding towards a winning start in an autumn series that concludes, as it did last year, with a tilt at New Zealand? Or anxiously fretting that, as with last year, they might be on the wrong end of an ambush by the unfancied Aussies?
The Rugby Football Union are pushing the boat out for the 10-year celebrations with a black-tie gig to be attended by the 2003 team in Battersea Park on Friday evening, even though the precise anniversary is 22 November, six days after the New Zealand match.
Perhaps it was less palatable than the dinner menu being prepared by Angela Hartnett to envisage the mighty Johnno and saintly Wilko taking a lap of honour at HQ when the All Blacks, with a rampant 10 victories in 10 matches this year, might be laying waste to it. Right now, it is obligatory when contemplating the QBE Internationals, which have Argentina on 9 November as the beef in the Australia-New Zealand sandwich, to believe anything is possible.
England’s management, to be fair to them, have been scrupulously pronouncing the crushing loss to Wales in Cardiff last March as their primary frame of reference, rather than the win over New Zealand last November – the world champions’ solitary defeat in 31 matches since August 2011.
While Wales’s galloping flankers Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric went on the Lions tour, their England counterpart Chris Robshaw went on holiday. Last Wednesday, when Robshaw was reappointed as England captain, his head coach, Stuart Lancaster, stated the well-liked Harlequin had “done nothing wrong”, making it an “easy decision” to pick him, although it was certainly a by-product of the back-row selection being compromised by Tom Croft’s injury and no pressing case being made by Gloucester’s Matt Kvesic or anyone else for Robshaw’s No 7 jersey.
England will rely on big ball-carriers such as Billy Vunipola at No 8 and the likely debutant Joel Tomkins at outside centre to offset on the gainline what Robshaw’s need to improve his foot speed might concede to Australia’s Michael Hooper and New Zealand’s Richie McCaw and Sam Cane in support play and reaching the breakdown.
And Robshaw has a recent history of debatable calls. When England lost at home to Australia and South Africa last autumn, as well as with Harlequins, when there has been a choice of line-out or scrum after a penalty award, Robshaw has sometimes gone for the unconventional and found it to be unsuccessful.
The lessons of Cardiff, and of Lancaster’s assistants Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree with the winning Lions in Australia have coloured England’s thinking. Watching Northampton’s Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood ruthlessly clearing out rucks against Ospreys last Sunday felt like a rehearsal for the next three weeks. “Sometimes you’ve got to get your best athletes on the field,” says Rowntree, in debating the second-row choice between the in-form marauder Lawes, the cerebral line-out caller Geoff Parling, Wasps’ all-court Joe Launchbury and Bath’s bulky enforcer Dave Attwood.
“I’m just excited at the minute,” says Lawes, who has been held back by injuries and suspension since his Test debut against Australia in 2009.
“I think I’ve settled into my role at Saints, I’m not looking for the big hit, I’m thinking more about where I need to be to get my hands on the ball. I’ve got my confidence back in carrying – and defensively, in terms of reading the game, I am doing much better.”
He made 20 tackles a week ago, although the “intelligent” Wallabies, as Parling describes them, surely won’t make the Ospreys’ mistake of lining up a small wing opposite Lawes on his starting blocks.
Lawes has been learning to run a line-out, as a back-up or alternative to Parling, who did travel with the Lions and played in every Test, starting in the second and third after Paul O’Connell broke an arm. “There’s a good energy among England’s players to push each other in training and bring the best out of each other,” says Parling, who was name-checked by Lancaster in a “core group of leaders” with Wood, Dylan Hartley, Toby Flood and Lee Dickson.
Parling, who appears uncertain that Ireland’s George Clancy will referee the Australian scrum with the rigour the Lions enjoyed from France’s Romain Poite in Sydney, says of the captaincy: “Everybody has an off day when you need help from players around you. But I do think it’s important that the guy that’s making decisions, the guy that has that last word, says it with authority and he backs himself.”
Parling also articulates a hunger his great Leicester and Lions predecessor Johnson would recognise. “Last year they had a 10-year anniversary dinner at Leicester for when we won the Heineken Cup and that pisses me off. I want it to be a one-year dinner, because I want us to have won the Heineken Cup. The past means nothing to me, really. With England, we haven’t won anything yet. An autumn series or a Six Nations – that’s got to be the target now, to actually win something.”
Sat 2 Nov: v Australia (2.30pm)
Sat 9 Nov: v Argentina (2.30pm)
Sat 16 Nov: v New Zealand (2.30pm)
Sat 9 Nov: v South Africa (5.30pm)
Sat 16 Nov: v Argentina (2.30pm)
Sat 23 Nov: v Tonga (7.30pm)
Sat 30 Nov: v Australia (5pm)
Sat 9 Nov: v Japan (2.30pm)
Sun 17 Nov: v South Africa (3pm)
Sat 23 Nov: v Australia (6pm)
Sat 9 Nov: v Samoa (5.45pm)
Sun 24 Nov: v New Zealand (2pm)
Sat 9 Nov: v New Zealand (9pm)
Sat 16 Nov: v Tonga (6pm)
Sat 23 Nov: v South Africa (9pm)
Sat 9 Nov: v Australia (3pm)
Sat 16 Nov: v Fiji (3pm)
Sat 23 Nov: v Argentina (3pm)