Martin Johnson, the England manager, believes defeat by the Barbarians at Twickenham on Sunday would be "survivable", although he may wonder whether life is worth living if his players suffer another embarrassment against a scratch side whose preparation time on the training field will have been more than matched by getting-to-know-you time in the bar. Johnson's employers have assured him his position is impregnable up to and including the World Cup in New Zealand next year, so he can survive just about anything that happens in the interim.
Whether the same is true of the new faces in his starting line-up – the Bath midfielder Shontayne Hape, the Newcastle prop Jon Golding and the Gloucester lock Dave Attwood – is another matter entirely. Hape has been picked at inside centre, even though he has no kicking game to speak of, and must be considered a risky selection: during the second half of the Premiership campaign, Bath took to playing him at outside centre when they played him at all, which was not as often as the naturalised New Zealander would have liked. And while Golding and Attwood are first-choice players in club rugby, neither has experience of the game at its higher levels.
But for illness and injury, both Hape and Golding might have featured in the Six Nations campaign. Attwood, by contrast, was a late runner for the forthcoming trip to Australia and New Zealand, impressing the management with his combination of heavy-duty ball-carrying and highly developed athleticism – the kind of weaponry that Simon Shaw brought to the mix when the veteran Wasps lock first appeared on the representative scene a decade and a half ago. Attwood also has some attitude about him, and as Johnson remarked yesterday, "Attitude is 90 per cent of the game."
Should the two tight forwards make their mark, they can look forward to next month's fixtures with a degree of optimism. For others – the Sale outside-half Charlie Hodgson, the Harlequins wing David Strettle, the London Irish flanker Steffon Armitage – this weekend's pre-tour activity has a greater sense of urgency about it. For different reasons, Hodgson and Strettle had a rough time of it the last time England visited the Antipodes in 2008: the former because he performed badly on the field, the latter because he performed all too well off it. Brought back into the fold after a long period of penance, they need to deliver quickly.
Armitage, meanwhile, inhabits the uncomfortable place common to all those who travel abroad as understudy to the captain. As expected, Johnson confirmed the Leicester back-rower Lewis Moody as tour leader – Moody's Guinness Premiership final commitments on Saturday mean Nick Easter of Harlequins will shoulder the responsibility against the Baa-Baas – so barring injury or an act of God, there will be only one candidate for the No 7 shirt when the two Tests with the Wallabies come around. Not for the first time, Armitage will have to make do with scraps.
But those scraps are essential to him. Assuming Moody keeps body and soul together long enough to make the World Cup cut, the scrap for places on the open-side flank will be intense. Tom Rees of Wasps will be 100 per cent fit come September, and there is no knowing what Andy Saull, the energetic young Saracen, might achieve next season. Armitage does not expect to see much of the limelight over the coming weeks, but the quality of his work in the half-light will decide his international future.
Jonny Wilkinson, the England outside-half, will be fit to travel to Australia next week, the national selectors learnt yesterday. Wilkinson suffered a rib injury while playing for Toulon in the Amlin Challenge Cup final last Sunday and was considered doubtful for the trip, but X-rays showed nothing more than soft tissue damage.
England team v Barbarians
B Foden (Saints); M Cueto (Sale), M Tindall, (Gloucester), S Hape (Bath), D Strettle (Harlequins); C Hodgson (Sale), D Care (Harlequins); J Golding (Newcastle), S Thompson (Brive), P Doran-Jones (Gloucester), D Attwood (Gloucester), T Palmer (Stade Français), J Haskell (Stade Français), S Armitage (London Irish), N Easter (capt) (Harlequins)
Replacements L Mears (Bath), T Payne (Wasps), D Ward-Smith (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps), J Simpson (Wasps), O Barkley (Bath), M Tait (Sale)Reuse content