Toby Flood was not among the England backs mockingly labelled "pretty" and "good looking" by the Wallaby wing Digby Ioane, but he has just about recovered from the blow to his self-esteem. "I didn't have much of a chance with this itchy thing on my face," he said yesterday, pointing to the Motörhead-style moustache he has grown in aid of charity. "Who was he talking about anyway? Charlie Sharples with his bean head? Chris Ashton with his see-through skin?" Flood seemed genuinely confused, the poor petal.
Happily for the national team, the Leicester outside-half has a much clearer idea of how he and his colleagues might attack Australia at Twickenham on Saturday – a game that may well decide England's fate when the draw for the home World Cup in three years' time takes place in London early next month. If Flood and company can out-create and outscore the tourists, their chances of avoiding the likes of New Zealand and South Africa in the 2015 pool stage will be greatly enhanced.
Flood's freshly-minted partnership with the new England full-back Alex Goode was the most eye-catching element of the 54-point thrashing of Fiji four days ago, their mixing and matching in the first and second receiver roles opening up a range of possibilities. "Alex brings something completely different and I'm very hopeful the combination will grow over time," the goal-kicker remarked. "It's almost as though we're playing the All Blacks' five-eighths system in midfield, but with Alex further out. It's interesting to be a part of it, because it's very different."
It will be no easy matter bringing this to bear on the Wallabies, however: the tourists may be missing a beating heart in the scrum-half Will Genia, an imaginative playmaker in the errant Quade Cooper and an opportunist of genius in James O'Connor – absences that make their continuing marginalisation of Matt Giteau, the high-calibre midfielder currently playing in France, all the harder to understand – but no one in his right mind would underestimate the threat posed by Kurtley Beale and Adam Ashley-Cooper, natural matchwinners both.
"The Australians will be smart – they always are," Flood said. "You can sit down and watch every move they put together over the course of the southern hemisphere season and still not know everything, because they'll have worked out the way we defend and come up with new moves just for this game. And they have the scope to really hurt you in the last quarter of a tight match because they're confident enough to pack the back field and attack from distance. Just when you think you're OK, they take advantage of your fatigue.
"Yes, they lost heavily in France last weekend, but I don't believe in that 33-6 scoreline. I don't trust it because it seems an odd one to me. And while some people are talking about a backlash from them at Twickenham, it wouldn't really be a backlash, would it? In their previous game, they drew 18-18 with New Zealand. They're the kind of side who can take a game away from anyone in 20 minutes. If they have a few issues off the field, it doesn't take away from their quality on it."
It was clear by the end of the Fiji game that Sharples, the young Gloucester wing, had done enough to hold his place for Australia, and with Ashton back from suspension, Ugo Monye of Harlequins was in an all-too-familiar position of vulnerability. His worst fears were confirmed last night when Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, dropped him from the match-day squad of 23 and returned him to his club.
Lancaster described it as a "tough" call on the 2009 Lions Test back, not least because Monye found his way onto the scoresheet last Saturday. But the coach said Ashton had performed strongly in training, adding that Sharples had been rewarded for his two-try performance against the visitors from the South Seas.
Jonathan Joseph, the London Irish centre who has been struggling with an ankle injury, and Alex Corbisiero, the prop from the same club who has been plagued by knee trouble since late June, proved their fitness in yesterday's defence session at the team base in Surrey, but the coaches felt no need to fast-track them into the mix for the Wallaby Test.
"Alex has played only once in five months so it is important he goes back to his club for more game time," Lancaster explained. Joseph, in the same boat as Corbisiero, is likely to be recalled if Manu Tuilagi fails to shake off a foot problem suffered against Fiji, but the human bowling ball from Leicester had the injury scanned yesterday, was given an optimistic prognosis and is expected to train tomorrow.
The only forward with a serious chance of breaking up the status quo, Ben Morgan of Gloucester, was also released from the squad. Thomas Waldrom of Leicester, who replaced Morgan on form for the final Test of last summer's series in South Africa, will continue at No 8.
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