Johnson senses golden chance as Wallabies are robbed of Giteau

The cards have fallen rather well for England this week, so it would be nice if they made it count for once.

On Tuesday, they drew a game they might easily have lost heavily; on Wednesday, their promising young lock Dave Attwood was spared a tour-ending suspension on a procedural technicality; yesterday, the brilliant Matt Giteau withdrew from the Wallaby side with a hip problem. As today's match with Australia will be played in the least forbidding of the country's rugby strongholds – not so much a fortress as a wendy house – against what amounts to half a team, the odds on an unexpected summer Test victory have shortened dramatically.

Meetings with weakened combinations who still happen to be extremely useful bring pressures of their own, but it must be said that if England fail to beat their hosts here at the Subiaco Oval, they might struggle to beat them anywhere ever again. Giteau's replacement, the Waratahs midfielder Berrick Barnes, is nobody's idea of a time-waster, but the injured man's last Test performance but one, against Wales in Cardiff last November, was so jaw-droppingly majestic that it is hard to believe any team can simply rise above his absence without a second thought.

"It's late in the day to lose a player like him," acknowledged Martin Johnson, the England manager, struggling to suppress a faint smile of relief. Barnes is a perfectly capable player, but we all know what Giteau is and it does change things a little. His withdrawal doesn't win the game for us, of course, but he's a key guy for them."

It is not only Giteau, either. Adam Ashley-Cooper and the much talked-about scrum-half Will Genia are also missing from the back division, although the latter has made it onto the bench, while no fewer than five first-choice forwards – Ben Robinson, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander, James Horwill and Wycliff Palu – have cried off sick with all manner of aches, pains and fractures. Their freshly-recruited front-rowers boast only one Test start amongst them, and while England have good reason to fear the likes of Nathan Sharpe, Rocky Elsom and David Pocock in other sectors of the pack, they will be bitterly disappointed if they fail to dominate at close quarters.

Steve Thompson, a streamlined version of the hooker who helped see off the Wallabies twice in the World Cup-winning year of 2003 (he has shed the best part of two stones since then), was suitably guarded yesterday. "They're clever rugby players," he said. "They were very smart in doing what they did at the set-piece a few years ago, when they weren't a particularly strong scrummaging side, and now that they're better equipped in that area. This will be a test for us because none of us have ever played against their new front row."

All the same, the tourists should hold the whip hand in the darkened recesses, especially with the tight-head prop Dan Cole, very much the discovery of the English season, in such commanding form. "He has a touch of the serial-killer about him," Thompson remarked, a little startlingly. "Quiet but effective." Poor Ben Daley, the debutant on the loose-head side of the Wallaby scrum, must be wondering whether this rugby lark is really his cup of tea.

Martin Johnson used a wholly different form of words in singing the Leicester prop's praises. "He's a bright guy and he's going about everything the right way," the manager said. "It's good to have a tight head of his quality who isn't 35." And the rest of the team? Are England really good enough to press home whatever advantage the uglies wrestle away from the Wallabies in the tight? Unusually, Johnson was openly bullish about this, too.

"We have the ability to win here, without a doubt," he responded. "What we're trying to impress on the players is that taking results from these games is not so much about tactics or strategy as about execution. How do you beat these big southern hemisphere teams in their own countries? You have to be good enough, you can't fake it. But the main thing is the belief that comes from commitment, and you show that every time you train, every time you attend a team meeting."

There is no doubting the importance of this fixture in laying the bedrock of that belief. This is the strongest squad to cross the Equator since Johnson clapped his great hairy mitts around the Webb Ellis Trophy, and while considerable debate still rages around some of his choices – Shontayne Hape at inside centre, Danny Care at scrum-half, Tim Payne on the loose head – the majority of the players feel things are beginning to take shape.

But as things stand, they have only a half-encouraging performance against the Grand Slam-winning French in March – a defeat, lest we forget, albeit a narrow one – on which to base their optimism. They need something more tangible to carry them towards next year's World Cup in New Zealand. Victory today would be perfect, even against such an injury-ravaged Wallabies side. Defeat, on the other hand, would hurt the tourists badly and leave Johnson asking: if not now, when?

Jeremy Clarkson
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