England to face weak Australia pack next month

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The Independent Online

When England returned home from a drawn series in Australia a little over three months ago, they did not know quite where they stood vis-à-vis the Wallabies. On the one hand, they had won Down Under for only the third time in rugby history; on the other, they had played against a team so pathetically weak in the scrum that the entire tour had been hopelessly distorted. Unfortunately for Martin Johnson and the rest of the red-rose hierarchy, they are unlikely to be any the wiser come the end of November.

England play the Wallabies at Twickenham in six weeks' time, and the sides will not meet again unless and until they reach the semi-finals – or the final – of next year's World Cup in New Zealand. Victory would obviously be handy for Johnson in terms of making an early point, but as the Australians will again be light up front, it may not amount to much.

This time, the Wallabies have issues in the back five of the scrum rather than the front row. They are struggling badly for bodies in the lock department: James Horwill, one of the key figures in the Australia pack, and Mark Chisholm are both injured, while Dan Vickerman is studying at Cambridge University and is not of a mind to forgo the fascinations of land economy in favour of a few weeks' bump and grind with his fellow countrymen. As a result, the uncapped Queensland forward Van Humphries has been summoned at the ripe old age of 34, along with a fellow rookie in Pat O'Connor of New South Wales.

In the back row, the hole left by Wycliff Palu remains unfilled – his long-term injury problems appear to be stretching into infinity – while Stephen Hoiles, the flanker who led the Australian second string in two midweek matches against England during the summer, is also unfit.

These orthopaedic problems extend to the backs, where the likes of Digby Ioane, Stirling Mortlock and Rob Horne are off limits. As a consequence, the Wallaby coach, Robbie Deans, has named a dozen uncapped players in his 40-man training squad, which will be cut to a more manageable size later this month, ahead of embarkation.

Leicester, meanwhile, are making positive noises about the imminent return of their stand-off Toby Flood, the man currently in possession of the England No 10 shirt. Flood suffered a knee injury during his club's defeat at Northampton on the opening day of the season – a minor calamity that has led to the widespread presumption that Jonny Wilkinson, scoring heavily for Toulon in the French Top 14 tournament, will be recalled for the first autumn Test against New Zealand on 6 November.

But Flood is now close to fitness and has an outside chance of making the Leicester squad for this weekend's Heineken Cup match in Treviso. Even if he fails to make it, he is likely to play some part in the home game with Scarlets on Sunday week.