England have not changed too much in the way of personnel for this weekend's intriguing set-to with the Wallabies at Twickenham – the first meeting between the two sides since the momentous World Cup quarter-final in Marseilles a little over a year ago – but there has been a profound change in the psychology of the rivalry. Instead of talking up their scrummaging prowess in the way hedge fund managers once boasted of their earning power, the red rose army are now playing the modesty card. Swagger is out, self-effacement is in.
"I'm not going to be conned into this thing about us having an advantage," said Graham Rowntree, the recently promoted scrum coach, when asked whether England's comprehensive dismantling of the Australian set-piece in the south of France – not to mention their total command of the darkened recesses in London three years ago, when the tourists ran out of prop forwards capable of standing up against anything more substantial than a dead koala – would give them an obvious edge on Saturday. "We haven't exactly been shoving people around ourselves just lately, and the Wallabies have worked hard on this aspect of their game. It's a lot more equal these days."
Equal? Try telling Al Baxter or Matt Dunning or any of the other poor saps in recent Wallaby front rows about equality with the English, whose specialist scrummagers have been setting about them with abandon since the two best Australian props of recent memory, Richard Harry and Andrew Blades, packed it in shortly after tasting the elixir of World Cup glory in 1999. When England have beaten Australia in the last nine years – and they have done it on seven occasions – their victory has almost always been scrum-driven.
It was not hard to see Rowntree's point, however. The All Blacks had England in all sorts of strife in New Zealand last summer, and when the Pacific Islanders visited Twickenham last weekend for the first match of Martin Johnson's managership, their set-piece was considerably more comfortable than had been anticipated.
"We will need to up our game significantly in the scrum this weekend," affirmed the former Leicester loose-head prop. "I expected us to exert a lot more pressure against the Islanders than we did. The conditions were difficult and led to a lot of collapses; as for the referee – please don't get me started on that. But we haven't been meeting our standards, so there's not point looking back at past successes. Andrew Sheridan has been a part of those successes, but he wasn't intimidating enough for my liking last weekend. The whole pack wasn't as dominant as I wanted them to be."
As a result of the shortcomings in the scrum – and, indeed, the repeated problems at the restarts, directly after England had scored – two tight forwards, the tight-head prop Matt Stevens and the lock Nick Kennedy, have lost their places in the starting line-up.
Phil Vickery, a former national captain with long experience of sticking it to the Australia scrum, and Tom Palmer, who might well have played last week but for concerns over his fitness, are reinstated.
"We have two high-quality tight heads," said Johnson, after overseeing the first selectorial tinkerings of his managerial career. "Matt is among the replacements for this game, and everyone knows his ability as an impact player. Phil deserves a start and he's been rewarded with one. He's fit, he's in-form and he's a world-class player. He's in his best shape for a while – as good as I've seen him, in fact. He's a good guy to have involved at this level, because everything he does is geared towards the success of the team. It's not an ego trip with Phil." On the subject of Kennedy's demise – sudden and rather harsh, given that he scored an excellent try on his debut last weekend – Johnson was equally keen to emphasise the positives over the negatives. "Nick is disappointed, understandably so," he said of the London Irish lock, who is out of the match-day squad altogether and free to play for his club in the Premiership game at Newcastle on Sunday. "It's difficult to explain to guys who feel dropped that it's not the way they think it is. Nick is a massive part of our plans, but we feel Tom is a good all-round lock forward while Simon Shaw offers something different from the bench."
With the Wallabies short of influential players – for one reason or another, the wing Lote Tuqiri, the midfielder Berrick Barnes, the locks James Horwill and Dan Vickerman and the flanker Rocky Elsom are all unavailable for this fixture – England will start as favourites. But Johnson, as is his wont, is extremely wary. "Australian teams are always very smart," he said. "They find you out. They make the best of what they have, and even when they lose, it's not by very much."
Australia will start with 14 of the players who pushed the All Blacks hard in the final match of the Bledisloe Cup series, in Hong Kong a week and a half ago. The exception is the line-out specialist Hugh McMeniman, who has played a good deal of rugby at lock but will begin this game on the blind-side flank, alongside the new No 8 Richard Brown and the long-serving breakaway forward George Smith.
England XV to play Australia
D Armitage (London Irish); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), R Flutey (Wasps), U Monye (Harlequins); D Cipriani (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), T Palmer (Wasps),T Croft (Leicester), T Rees (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), M Stevens (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), H Ellis (Leicester), T Flood (Leicester).
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