New captain, new coach – new Wallabies? Twickenham is about to find out and, although the nascent double act of George Gregan and Eddie Jones are talking up a different battle plan for their first assault on HQ together, plenty of the old world champion quality remains.
Take Stephen Larkham, for one. The ACT Brumbies outside-half – or five-eighth as he would more naturally call it – is ready to write a fresh page of rugby history on the ground where his dramatic dropped goal in extra time snuffed South Africa out of the World Cup semi-final two years ago. Larkham and his ACT half-back cohort Gregan, the new Wallaby skipper in succession to John Eales, missed the last-minute defeat by England 12 months ago. But neither they nor Jones are exactly wet behind the ears.
Rod Macqueen was a hard act for Jones to follow, but the heir apparent announced himself as ready when he became the first Australian coach to land the Super 12 title, with ACT's 36-6 victory over the Natal Sharks in last May's final.
The Canberra-based Brumbies used to be derided by those from the established rugby union bases of Queensland and New South Wales as the "Cappuccino Set". Now, it was the traditionalists who had to wake up and smell the coffee, and Jones followed up by masterminding Australia A's defeat of the Lions in June.
Macqueen handed over the reins once the Lions had departed, defeated, and Jones's coronation in the Tri-Nations ended in triumph with Larkham giving the scoring pass to Toutai Kefu in the final moments of Eales's glorious swansong against the All Blacks. "It's been a fairly easy transition to Eddie," said Larkham of the Wallabies. "He coaches in a similar style to Rod, with a couple of new ideas and new techniques. The players are comfortable with him, and with George as the captain."
Despite the bulging trophy cabinet, Larkham has not had everything his own way in 2001. Nicknamed Bernie after the deceased subject of the film Weekend At Bernie's, the gangly 27-year-old comes alive in rugby's fast lane, perching himself on the edge of destruction as he searches for the telling pass or gap to run into.
He was mercilessly targeted by the Lions, and sustained a shoulder injury in the Second Test that forced him to miss the third. Larkham was in pain for several days before he realised with relief that he could lift his arm above his head, so confirming that he had not severed a nerve, which would have ended his year there and then. "I was a little bit disappointed not to play in the first Tri-Nations game after that," he said with typical understatement, "but it's certainly better than having nine months out of the game."
Last week the Wallabies, perhaps mindful of the foul weather which has accompanied their previous two Twickenham excursions, elected to grab a bit of sun in Spain, hammering the locals 92-10 along the way in a warm-up Test. That, combined with an opening loosener against the English National Divisions at Leicester, and a visit to Oxford University today, have made for unusual preparation for a match against the Six Nations champions.
Perhaps, with Jones espousing a more attacking game than that favoured by Macqueen, the Wallabies are keeping some fresh ideas under their corked hats. "It's not just Eddie, all the players have been pushing for more in attack," said Larkham. "We'd moved away from an attacking game, and I think there are a few players in the squad who would prefer to play that sort of rugby. We have found it a little difficult in recent games. Defences have improved over the last couple of years since we won the World Cup. But you have got to be careful when you attack. You can't just spin the ball wide and hope to make a break."
Larkham made his Test debut in 1996, having been a reserve scrum-half at club level only a year previously, and was at full-back against England at Twickenham in 1997. A stand-your-ground block on Mike Catt showed his resolve in preventing a possible English try, and the match was drawn.
It was Macqueen who ushered Larkham into the Wallaby No 10 jersey, initially in the 76-0 pummelling of the Poms – next week's opposite number Jonny Wilkinson included – on the infamous 1998 Tour from Hell.
"I'm still learning the position," Larkham said. "You'll sometimes find me loitering at full-back because I'm too lazy to get up in the line." On a more serious note, he added: "I watched last year's game on TV at home in Canberra. I know a lot of the boys who played feel they were hard done by with the sin-binning towards the end. They're still hurting from that decision." England will beware the wounded Wallabies.Reuse content