England's coaching team, under a serious amount of pressure in the build-up to the Sydney Test against the Wallabies, according to the scrum technician Graham Rowntree, are now talking enthusiastically about the so-called "third Test" of the tour, against the New Zealand Maori in Napier on Wednesday. "We have the breakthrough win we spoke about earlier in the trip, but we know we have to back it up," Rowntree said yesterday. "We have a chance to end this tour well in credit."
How quickly things change. A week or so ago, as a humbled red-rose party flew across Australia from Perth after one of the more painful humiliations of the last few years, one of the backroom staff – not Rowntree – was heard to say: "This is a vital few days for us. If we don't perform in Sydney, we're all in the shit." They are not entirely out of the ordure just yet, but Martin Johnson and his colleagues have at least put themselves in a sweeter-smelling place for the duration of the summer. And if they can inflict a rare defeat on the Maori, they will look back on this tour with genuine affection.
"We're certainly approaching this as a third Test," Rowntree confirmed. "For some of the people who played in Sydney at the weekend, it was the last throw of the dice at the end of a very long season – two long seasons, for those involved in last year's Lions tour. It's the same for the people playing here. It's an important match. In the context of the 2011 World Cup, we need to see what we have available."
The coaches have retained a few of the younger players who secured England's third victory over the Wallabies in Australia – the full-back Ben Foden, the wing Chris Ashton, the scrum-half Ben Youngs, the tight-head prop Dan Cole, the lock Courtney Lawes – plus one more senior member of the party, the loose-head prop Tim Payne, who is staying on tour because of the injury problems affecting the Newcastle forward Jon Golding. However, the captain Lewis Moody, described by Rowntree as "the barometer of our energy and our passion", is heading home. No decision has yet been made as to who will lead the side against the Maori.
"We're not getting over-excited on the strength of one victory, but given the pressure we've been under, we needed that win," Rowntree continued. "We knew after Perth that we had to tighten up, especially around the fringes of the breakdown. Fair play to Mike Ford [the specialist defence coach], he spent hours on it. Perth was an eye-opener for everyone in terms of pace and intensity, but it was also a fact that we let ourselves down, and people spent the week beating themselves up about it." Was he saying the players shamed themselves into delivering an improvement in Sydney? "That's a good way of putting it," he responded. "Yes, I think some of them did."
Five of the 28 remaining players have yet to start a game: two rival hookers, George Chuter of Leicester and Rob Webber of Wasps; the Northampton loose forward Phil Dowson; his Franklin's Gardens colleague Shane Geraghty; and a second midfielder in the recently-arrived Saracens centre Brad Barritt. The team will not be named until the medics have carried out checks on two other centres, Olly Barkley of Bath and Dominic Waldouck of Wasps, both of whom were struggling over the weekend.Reuse content