England have spent the last decade and a half beating Australia in all the games that really matter: the World Cup quarter-finals of 1995 and 2007 are prime examples, along with the 2003 contest in Melbourne, where Sir Clive Woodward's team proved to everyone except a couple of one-eyed sheep farmers from Wagga Wagga that they were the outstanding side on the planet. Not forgetting another little tussle in Sydney later the same year, when a bloke by the name of Wilkinson dropped a goal and Martin Johnson cracked a smile for the first time in his adult life.
Johnson will be seen smiling for a second time if the team he now manages see off the Wallabies at Twickenham this afternoon, even if there is no crock of gold hanging on the result. England need a victory, and need it badly. For all the claims of progress made by everyone involved in the ruthless establishment of the Johnson regime some 18 months ago – the RFU chairman Martyn Thomas and the elite director of rugby Rob Andrew in particular – there are precious few facts to support their view. As Professor David Nutt might say: "Look at the evidence."
Thus far, Johnson has recorded only two victories over sides ranked above England in nine attempts, and his team's place in those rankings – seventh – is a more or less accurate reflection of the state of the nation, although it is perfectly possible to argue that Wales, who occupy the place below, are currently the more potent of the two nations. What is more, there has been growing concern that the process of building a side capable of making a telling impact on the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand has barely started.
This concern will ease if the likes of David Wilson, the new tight-head prop, and Shane Geraghty, the gifted Northampton midfielder who makes his first international start today after being capped three times off the bench, give the Wallabies something to remember them by. But they are playing only because of injuries to those ahead of them in the pecking order: the old-stagers Phil Vickery and Julian White in Wilson's case; Riki Flutey and Toby Flood in Geraghty's. It is also true to say that Matt Banahan, the outsized Bath wing, would have struggled for selection had either Delon Armitage or Olly Morgan been fit to play at full-back, which would have allowed Ugo Monye to continue in his optimum position of left wing.
Still, England "are where they are", to borrow Johnson's phrase, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this unfamiliar combination will click sufficiently to light up a fresh way forward for the selectors. The home side certainly look strong in the back-row department and offer a range of differing threats out wide, where Banahan's straight-line power and Monye's pace are complemented by Mark Cueto's ability to make intelligent, well-timed forays off his wing.
Of course, regular Twickenhamites will have difficulty looking beyond Jonny Wilkinson as England's potential match-winner. But Johnson knows that the public assumption of the outside-half's infallibility – the notion that with Jonny-boy in the pivot position, things will always turn out for the best – is dangerous in the extreme. "When Jonny speaks to the team, I'm sure they have respect for what he says," the manager remarked yesterday. "But everyone has to play his part in a performance. We need the team to play well, not just Jonny."
Under the circumstances, Johnson was relieved to hear the thoughts of Dan Hipkiss on the subject. Questioned, with tedious inevitability, about Wilkinson's influence on the national side, he acknowledged the outside-half was an important figure in the set-up before adding: "I'm 27 now, and I can't be looking to other people for the rest of my life. I want Jonny to have as much faith in me as I have in him." To which the manager responded: "I'm glad Dan said that. He's quite right."
Wilkinson may well score a hatful of points this afternoon, just as he did on his fast-tracked comeback against Scotland in 2007. There again, he is up against an opponent equally capable of setting the scoreboard spinning like a fruit machine. Matt Giteau banged over half a dozen penalties and a conversion in kicking the Wallabies to a comprehensive victory at Twickenham this time last year, and for all Australia's many problems against the world's strongest sides, South Africa and New Zealand, in recent weeks, he has never looked anything other than a performer of the very highest calibre.
Does he have the right men around him today, in the absence of such luminaries as Stirling Mortlock, Berrick Barnes and Nathan Sharpe? Johnson himself suspects he has.
"They are a very dangerous team," the manager admitted. "They're young, but Australians tend to become battle-hardened very quickly. In their rugby culture, you either learn fast or you leave the side."
The likes of Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander, James Horwill and Will Genia have proved themselves students of quality, and assuming the new centre combination of Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane stays afloat, the likelihood must be that they will stretch England in all areas. Are the Banahans and Geraghtys and Wilsons equally adept at cottoning on to the realities of Test rugby? If the answer turns out to be in the affirmative, the team-building for 2011 will be accelerated.
Johnson was not quite in "no excuses" mode yesterday. "We're confident, although we haven't had the continuity we would have liked," he said, referring to the raft of recent injuries affecting senior players. Happily, Hipkiss was more bullish. "We've had 12 days to prepare for this," he commented.
"There have been no interruptions, no players suffering from bumps and bruises after a Premiership match, as happened in the past. It's not often that a team spends so much time together gearing up towards one game, so it's up to us to make it count." Amen.
The Fabulous '84ers: How Campese & Co floored England
Nick Farr-Jones, Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh, Andrew Slack, Brendan Moon, Roger Gould and David somebody-or-other...that's right, Campese. The Wallaby back division of 1984 was quite something – comfortably good enough to beat England at Twickenham in the first match of their tour and, in the weeks following, to take Australia to a long-awaited first Grand Slam. Coached by Alan Jones, brash and opinionated even by Aussie standards, the '84ers were one of the truly great sides in the annals of the sport. Successful, sensational, seminal.
A quarter of a century on from the initial 19-3 victory in London – the scoreline does not sound much to write home about by modern standards, but the tourists scored the only three tries of the afternoon – it is easy to forget the contribution of the pack. But the likes of "Topo" Rodriguez, Tom Lawton, Steve Cutler and Simon Poidevin would, over the ensuing years, become almost as feared as Lynagh and Campese. Together with the Ella-inspired back-line, they raised Australia to the top of the tree. And England? They would win only two of the next 13 matches between the countries.
England ................................. Australia
U Monye (Harlequins)......... 15......... A A-Cooper (Brumbies)
M Cueto (Sale)......... 14......... P Hynes (Q'land)
D Hipkiss (Leicester)......... 13......... D Ioane (Q'land)
S Geraghty (N'hants)......... 12......... Q Cooper (Q'land)
M Banahan (Bath)......... 11......... D Mitchell (NSW)
J Wilkinson (Toulon)......... 10......... M Giteau (Brumbies)
D Care (Harlequins)......... 9......... W Genia (Q'land)
T Payne (Wasps)......... 1......... B Robinson (NSW)
S Thompson (Brive)......... 2......... S Moore (Brumbies)
D Wilson (Bath)......... 3......... B Alexander (B'bies)
L Deacon (Leicester)......... 4......... J Horwill (Q'land)
S Borthwick (S'cens, c)......... 5......... M Chisholm (Brumbies)
T Croft (Leicester)......... 6......... R Elsom (Brumbies, c)
L Moody (Leicester)......... 7......... G Smith (Brumbies)
J Crane (Leicester)......... 8......... W Palu (NSW)
Replacements: D Hartley, C Lawes (both N'hants), D Bell (Bath), J Haskell (Stade Fr), P Hodgson (London Irish), A Goode (Brive), A Erinle (Biarritz)
Replacements: M Dunning , D Pocock (both W Force), T Polota-Nau, D Mumm, L Burgess (all NSW), R Cross, J O'Connor (both W Force)
Referee B Lawrence (NZ) Kick-off 14.30 TV SS2Reuse content