England have spent the last few days playing down the scrummaging superiority they have long held over their great rivals from Australia, partly because they are petrified of tempting fate and partly because there is evidence that the Wallaby forwards might be rediscovering their feet – not to mention their necks, their shoulders and their guts – in this most confrontational and critical of disciplines. They must hope this evidence turns out to be a red herring, for if the tourists achieve parity at the set-piece, they will fancy their chances of victory today.
Hardened ex-forwards like Martin Johnson and John Wells, the England manager and forwards coach respectively, might have been expected to draw strength from the scrummaging expertise that underpinned the red-rose successes in London three years ago, when Andrew Sheridan single-handedly reduced the Wallaby front row to its component parts, and in Marseilles during the 2007 World Cup, when the same mountainous Sale prop splattered the Wallabies all over Provence. Instead, they have done everything in their power to sweep it under the carpet.
"Too much is being made of the scrum," Johnson said yesterday. "There will be far more rucks than scrums." But there have always been more rucks than scrums. The manager knows as well as anyone, and better than most, that the set-piece remains one of the key psychological tipping points in any game of rugby.
It is perfectly possible to scrummage well and lose a match, as Lee Mears, the England hooker, was quick to point out a few minutes after Johnson's eve-of-Test address. By the same yardstick, it is devilishly difficult to scrummage badly and win.
The Wallabies have been eerily quiet all week – certainly, there has been no hint of the aggressive wind-up strategy they employed in the build-up to the knock-out tie in Marseilles – but when Al Baxter, their much-maligned prop, was asked whether he felt the Australians were more on their mettle in the tight now than they were 13 months ago, he argued strongly that they had taken some significant steps in the right direction. Fact, or fantasy? These next 80 minutes of competitive thud and blunder will reveal all.
For union purists who see something beautiful in the conflict between two packs of cauliflower-faced forwards, this could be a heavenly experience – not just in scrummaging terms, but in line-out terms too. Steve Borthwick, the England captain, is rarely outmanoeuvred in the aerial department, but the Wallabies are no mugs either. Indeed, their line-out has been as good as any since the mid-Eighties, when Steve Cutler was beanpoling his way around the rugby pitches of the world.
"It's not just a matter of us winning our own ball," said Mears, the man charged with locating the English jumpers. "We also have to get amongst the Wallabies on their throw. If they deliver quality possession from the line-out, their backs can pull off some amazing tricks. They may have lost Dan Vickerman [the lock forward who has abandoned his Test career in favour of a three-year stint at Cambridge University], but Nathan Sharpe knows what he's about and Richard Brown, the new No 8, looks to be a very strong line-out operator."
As is usual these days, the Experimental Law Variations and refereeing protocols imposed on the sport by the International Rugby Board will have an effect, both on the line-out and on the phase play so beloved of Wallaby coaches down the years. Will the Australians be able to play keep-ball with their traditional efficiency if Marius Jonker, the South African official, does things by the book and penalises those who go off their feet at the tackle area?
Can England knock the Wallabies out of their stride by swamping the breakdown, as they did in Marseilles? Under the current laws, no one has the foggiest idea. Quite possibly it will come down to goal-kicking. Both sides are blessed with try-scoring back divisions – England's new wide unit of Delon Armitage, Paul Sackey and Ugo Monye looked encouragingly lethal against the Pacific Islanders a week ago – but with defences as parsimonious as they are, no one would die of shock if the two sides emerged with a single five-pointer apiece.
That would leave the game to be decided by way of a shoot-out between Danny Cipriani and Matt Giteau, neither of whom are complete strangers to the "golden boy" syndrome.
"This will be a far sterner test for us than last week's match," Johnson acknowledged. "The Pacific Islanders brought their own problems, but they spent only a few days together before coming to Twickenham. The Wallabies have played 11 matches this year, including three against the Springboks and four against the All Blacks, both of whom they beat. And there is always an edge when we play Australia, which is good. You'd always rather the game had an edge than not."
It can cut both ways, though. That's the thing about edges, especially those of the sharp kind that Australia tend to bring to a rugby match. Johnson describes them as a "smart team". If England do not match them in the brain department, as well as dominate them in the scrum, they will find themselves at serious risk of handing their formidable new manager his first taste of defeat.Reuse content