Shontayne Hape, the latest New Zealander to offer a solution to English rugby's most pressing positional problem, was described by one of his colleagues yesterday as a "different species". This was a fairly startling development in a sport traditionally populated by human beings, although the speaker – the Northampton full-back Ben Foden – may simply have meant that Hape is an unusual kind of inside centre, rather than an unfamiliar form of union-playing life. The real question is this: is the debutant about to move Olly Barkley's Test career closer to extinction?
The two men play together at Bath, where the selectors are in no doubt as to the identity of the best No 12 available to them, and given Barkley's form towards the end of the Premiership campaign, he might have expected to start tomorrow's opening Test against Australia at the Subiaco Oval – not least because he has a big kicking game, as opposed to Hape's non-existent one, and understands rather more about the dynamics of a union contest than a man who spent his formative years playing rugby league in his home country, and another four doing something similar in Bradford.
Barkley is bitterly disappointed at missing out on the date with the Wallabies, although it is equally clear that at least one of England's inner circle of coaches has no time for his particular brand of midfield playmaking. Barkley must, however, have known there was a strong chance of the selectors going down this road. Martin Johnson and company have been desperate to pick Hape since he first announced himself an ersatz Englishman – he would have played against Wales in February but for illness – and even though he possesses few of the bewitching qualities that distinguish the brilliant Wallaby footballers who will loom large in his eyeline, including the recalled full-back James O'Connor, size and power are the virtues prized most by this red-rose management.
He has a decent step, a dangerous off-load and tackles like an All Black, as befits someone born in Auckland. "I've been patient and I've bided my time," he said yesterday after being chosen ahead of the man he cannot find a way past at club level. "Playing for England is right up there as an honour, and this is a great place to finally get to do it." Might the balmy temperatures help him find a kicking game, suddenly? Hape shrugged. "My kicking is there if I need it," he replied, "but I'm more likely to run."
Whether this will be precisely what the doctor orders is a moot point, for if England are to beat the Wallabies here for only the third time, there is a more obvious way of going about it. Australia have been forced by injury to select one of the least experienced front-row combinations in living memory – Ben Daley (no Tests), Saia Faingaa (no starts) and Salesi Ma'afu (one Test, last weekend) – and will surely be vulnerable to the time-honoured red-rose strategy of kicking long and scrummaging hard, even if the current English set-piece has had its problems of late.
Johnson flatly denied that Hape's appearance alongside the heavy-tackling Mike Tindall was a defensive option. "It would be absolutely wrong to assume that," the manager insisted. He was equally unapologetic on the Jonny Wilkinson front. Most Australians assumed the celebrated outside-half would mark his first match in their country since the 2003 World Cup final by starting it, but as every Englishman who witnessed Toby Flood's fine performance in the last Six Nations game against France has known for weeks, he will begin proceedings on the bench. "Jonny is the ultimate team man and he'll give 100 per cent whatever we ask him to do, so it was an easy conversation," Johnson informed a puzzled local journalist. "That 2003 game was a long time ago. You probably need to get over it a little bit."
While Johnson was attempting to keep Australia guessing – "We'll have to do more than scrummage, because we won't win the game through our set-piece alone" – the hosts had already made up their minds about England's likely approach. "Looking at the profile of their group, I have no doubt that the scrum will be one of their starting points," said Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach. "The way they play the game, it has to be. We're conscious of it, but it doesn't concern us. Our pack is made up of guys who have earned the right to be there."
Dave Attwood, the Gloucester lock cleared on a procedural technicality of stamping during the drawn game with the Australian Barbarians on Tuesday, has been given a "talking to" by Johnson. "I've done what I've done and said what I've said," commented the manager. "The matter is closed as of now."
First Test teams
First Test, Perth (KO 11am BST):
J O'Connor (W Force); D Ione (Queensland), R Horne (NSW), M Giteau (ACT), D Mitchell (NSW); Q Cooper (Queensland), L Burgess (NSW); B Daley, S Faingaa (both Queensland), S Ma'afu (ACT), D Mumm (NSW), N Sharpe (W Force), R Elsom (ACT, capt), D Pocock, R Brown (both W Force).
B Foden (Northampton); M Cueto (Sale), M Tindall (Gloucester), S Hape (Bath), C Ashton (Northampton); T Flood (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), S Thompson (Brive), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), T Palmer (St Francais), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester, capt), N Easter (Harlequins) Replacements G Chuter (Leicester), D Wilson (Bath), C Lawes (Northampton), J Haskell (St Francais), B Youngs (Leicester), J Wilkinson (Toulon), M Tait (Sale).Reuse content