Always assuming a success-starved England are not distracted hunting autographs from a Barbarian squad featuring eight newly crowned European club cup-winners and a handful of French Grand Slammers, they will seek to kick off an exacting summer itinerary with a Twickenham victory this evening. The Baa-baas have the medals, but Martin Johnson's collection of wannabes and old hands have the motivation in their final call before tomorrow's flight south for five matches in Australia and New Zealand.
Xavier Rush will captain the Baa-baas and the Cardiff Blues' No 8, who last week lifted the European Challenge Cup, epitomises a gnarled and mostly thirtysomething pack who might either run out of puff after 40 minutes or make tyro tight forwards Jon Golding, Paul Doran-Jones and Dave Attwood wish they had never been born. Toulouse's Heineken Cup-winners are also well represented.
England will be lacking their seven Leicester players involved in yesterday's Premiership final, plus the captain for the last two years, Steve Borthwick, who even if he had not recovered from knee trouble to play for Saracens in the final, was being rested for today and the tour of two Tests followed by a fearsome footnote with the New Zealand Maori in Napier.
Johnson, as manager, has had five meetings with the Tri-Nations of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, all at Twickenham, and lost the lot. To reverse the trend the other side of the equator would be a gigantic step. Ben Foden, who has cruised ahead of Delon Armitage and Mark Cueto as first-choice full-back, has no interest in playing the role of plucky Pom Down Under. "We won't be happy with a 16-9 defeat," he said. "We want to go there and win, and win well. Everyone goes on about the brilliant style in the Super 14, the lovely expansive game. You see guys missing four or five tackles and you don't see that in our Premiership."
Yet Foden knows very well that international defences are tough, whichever direction the water disappears down your plughole. What he yearns for is a continuation of the will to attack which brought him a morale-boosting try in the 12-10 defeat to France last time out in March.
It was generally reckoned to have been an improved effort by England, captained that night and on the forthcoming trip by Lewis Moody, and it featured Toby Flood rather than Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half, as well as Mike Tindall restored at centre after 12 months' absence due to injury.
"Smithy [attack coach Brian Smith] had always been set-piece dominant," Tindall observed, "whereas what he's developing now is that the majority of your good game comes from turnovers and kick-chase, so we're trying to develop more of a loose style of play and not just being all set-piece."
Australia will always be all-court and though the precocious Will Genia – hailed both here and there as a world-beater after only 11 caps – is injured, Johnson's spies tell him the Queensland scrum-half will be fit for the Second Test in Sydney, if not the First in Perth. The two cities staged four of England's winning matches in the 2003 World Cup and Johnson has not been back since; in the meantime the score in Tests is 6-2 to the Wallabies, with a points difference of 128-36 in the three meetings on Aussie soil.
Australia have one survivor – the second row Nathan Sharpe – from the 2003 final; Tindall is one of four for England (assuming Wilkinson travels). In a 40-man Wallaby squad – 10 of whom will be required only for the two Australian Barbarians sides to meet England in midweek matches – there are several front-rowers who are not household names in Wagga Wagga, never mind Leicester. The long-serving prop Al Baxter has been omitted, Benn Robinson and Stephen Moore are injured, and hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau is with Genia on the road to recovery. It is hard to imagine more propitious circumstances for the likes of Newcastle's prop Golding or Stade Français' longer-in-the-tooth lock Tom Palmer to dominate on such a tour.
"It's not the be-all and end-all [to win] at this point," said Tindall in part-reference to the two victorious summers under Clive Woodward before the 2003 World Cup, "but there's the old adage of winning breeds winning, and all that Clive stuff. And it does: you get more confidence from it."
After a mere 16 matches this season – half the number of some of his colleagues – the 31-year-old squeeze of Zara Phillips is feeling fresh. Today he partners Bath's Shontayne Hape, with the in-form Wasp Dominic Waldouck waiting for his chance. "Australia are a good team," Tindall said, "but you look at what South Africa have done to them [last year] and they are beatable. Watching video of them, they're getting something together, but you look at their average age and they're definitely in a building phase. Whether next year is too early for them, only time will tell."
The time in question is a year and three months before the seventh World Cup in New Zealand, and England's Maori finale is designed to breed familiarity. The contentment of a few wins would be even more valuable.Reuse content