England tourists face a Barnes baptism of fire
If England have grown accustomed to facing tougher opponents than a band of Barbarians when opening their summer accounts in Australia, it is only because the "short tour" format – a prime example of rugby lunacy if ever there was one – forced them to take on the Wallabies themselves within a few hours of passing through customs.
This expanded itinerary is much more to their liking, although as Martin Johnson knows only too well, tomorrow's opening contest is nobody's idea of a cakewalk. Eleven capped players, including Berrick Barnes at outside-half? Maybe it's not so much fun after all.
"It will be a proper challenge," the manager acknowledged yesterday. "People have been saying to me: 'It's a Barbarians team. Does that disappoint you?' I don't look at it that way. We always thought we'd be playing what amounted to Australia's second team and that's the way it's turned out. They've named a pretty strong side with a lot of full internationals. We expect this to be fast-paced and extremely competitive."
Barnes is the main event of the evening as far as the Australian version of Barbaria is concerned; indeed, it must be of some concern to England that a playmaking midfielder of his quality cannot find a place in the elite side. Yet the undercard is not to be sniffed at either: James O'Connor, the prodigy at full-back, and Lachlan Turner, the highly capable left wing, will give the home side a cutting edge, as will Kurtley Beale and Peter Hynes off the bench. All things considered, the tourists will do extremely well to win.
Johnson will spend the next 36 hours or so deciding if the recently injured – Jonny Wilkinson, an old hand at outside-half, and Jon Golding, a newcomer at prop, fall into this category – have recovered sufficiently to challenge for a place in his Test team, who will face the Wallabies here in Western Australia at the weekend. He also says he wants to digest tomorrow's events before deciding on his optimum line-up, insisting it is possible for a tourist to feature in both of the week's contests.
"We haven't come all this way just to fulfil fixtures: the whole point of restoring these midweek games is to give people a chance," he said. "We're looking for continuity with a World Cup just over a year away, but there are always spots available for those who perform well enough. It's hard, but yes, I think people can play in the opening game and again on Saturday. If you're on a Lions tour, you play on a Tuesday and the coach says he wants you for the Test five days later, you don't say no, do you?"
The Wallabies, easy winners over Fiji in Canberra two days ago, have serious problems in the front row now the prop Ben Alexander is out of commission with a knee injury. Alexander's partners in a much-improved scrummaging unit, Benn Robinson and Stephen Moore, are also incapacitated, as is the second-string hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau.
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