History tells us that a trip to Australia is England's second-worst nightmare: only in New Zealand are they made to feel more inadequate, and they're going there next. No wonder Martin Johnson describes this as "a real tour and a real test" – one that will go a very long way towards shaping the red-rose challenge at the World Cup in 15 months' time. It is the last visit to the southern hemisphere before the great global gathering in All Black country and, it can be argued, the last opportunity for a number of celebrated performers, British and Irish Lions among them, to declare their candidacy.
The manager has been pretty frank about this in the week since he and his party arrived here. "We have 44 players with us and there are others back home who could have been," Johnson said yesterday. "I've made the point that we can't fit everyone into a 32-man squad. There will be some thinking to do before we name our new elite party in July." Or to put it another way, there is a "now or never" flavour to the five-match programme that begins with a match against the Australian Barbarians – Australia A by any other name – in front of a 20,000-plus audience today.
Johnson has been equally blunt about his choices for the first Test with the Wallabies in this same city on Saturday. In private, at least. As the Bath centre Olly Barkley, one of those with most to prove over the forthcoming fortnight or so, reported in his usual open and honest fashion, the weekend line-up was pretty much set in stone some days ago. "I won't pretend I'm not disappointed," said Barkley, indicating that he had lost the first of his duels with his clubmate Shontayne Hape. "It took me a while to get my head around it, but I'm not one to dwell on what isn't going to be. Shontayne has been involved in the squad for six months and I had an inkling that the management wanted to see him at Test level. He has my full support, but it's up to me to put pressure on the person playing in my position."
That process begins today, and not just for Barkley. Ugo Monye, a Lions Test wing this time last year, has ground to make up, as do his direct competitor Matt Banahan, the full-back Delon Armitage, the outside centre Mathew Tait, the hooker Lee Mears and the tight-head prop David Wilson, all of whom were first-choice picks for England in recent times but start this tour as supporting acts. Strong performances against a bristling band of ambitious Australians who find themselves in a similar boat will earn them prized places in the Elite Player Squad. Any damp squibs will be left to fizzle out with a barely audible "phut".
This is the most demanding piece of summer business undertaken by an England side since the God-awful "tour of hell" in 1998, when Clive Woodward's party lost all seven fixtures on the list, by an aggregate scoreline of 328-88. That was a weak squad: Jonny Wilkinson was 19 going on 12; the back division in the 76-0 humiliation by the Wallabies contained such luminaries as Spencer Brown, Steve Ravenscroft and Scott Benton. This, on the other hand, is the best squad Johnson can muster, give or take an Andrew Sheridan, a Dylan Hartley, a Steve Borthwick or a Riki Flutey. Anything resembling a whitewash will be calamitous.
England will do remarkably well to win a Test against the Australians, even with the entire Wallaby front-row in various states of orthopaedic distress and out of circulation until later in the year. The home back-line positively oozes danger – Quade Cooper, Matt Giteau, Kurtley Beale, Digby Ioane and Drew Mitchell are enough to scare the pants off better combinations than the tourists can offer, even if Adam Ashley-Cooper and the sensational Will Genia fail to recover from injury in time for this weekend's proceedings – and as a consequence, they are oozing confidence too. Indeed, their coach, Robbie Deans, could be heard admitting yesterday that in doing his homework on the all-too predictable English, he gave the "fast-forward" button something of a hammering.
But if red-rose Test victories on Australian soil have a Halley's Comet frequency about them (two in 15 attempts, both in the same wondrous year of 2003), wins in the two midweek meetings with the Australian Barbarians are a minimum requirement. It would be stretching a point to suggest that they ought to beat the New Zealand Maori into the bargain – that game in Napier a fortnight tomorrow really is a rats' alley job – but they should be seriously competitive even there. If they are less than that in any of these five matches, Johnson will find himself in need of some very good answers.
Moments of truth: four backs with points to prove
Out of form and out of the Test reckoning, the full-back must rediscover his sense of freedom.
Injured at the wrong moment, can he reel in the Premiership sensation Chris Ashton on this trip?
After years of being messed around, he now has a chance in his optimum position of inside centre.
Dumped after the ill-starred trip to New Zealand in 2008, he has one last opportunity to make himself indispensable.