There's an argument that says Australia have their backs against the wall as they begin their latest Grand Slam tour of the British Isles at Twickenham. Their results have been pretty rough since losing a tight series with the Lions in the summer – or, as we Aussies tend to call June and July, the winter – and although the last two performances, in Rosario and Dunedin, were a significant improvement on those that went before, the new coach, Ewen McKenzie, cannot feel entirely comfortable with life.
But the Wallabies are in a much better space than most rugby followers in the northern hemisphere like to imagine. Ewen has been open and honest about his team's shortcomings over the course of the Rugby Championship, admitting that he did not envisage losing three straight games first up and shipping well over 100 points in the process. But Test rugby south of the Equator is a cruel place – especially for the Aussies, with their limited playing numbers and even more limited budgets.
They have to front up, week on week, against New Zealand and South Africa, the strongest teams in the world game. Third prize is a trip to Argentina to play a bunch of crazy Pumas hell-bent on sticking it to anyone setting foot on South American soil. Very rarely do the Wallabies get to play a soft fixture – a tough reality, especially when things have been difficult behind the scenes.
But if the mindset is right, these are the circumstances that give a team the impetus to regroup – and, to my mind, this is precisely what the Wallabies are succeeding in doing. The big win over Argentina in Rosario was the tipping point. If they had gone there and played scared – if damage limitation had been at the heart of their approach – it could have been catastrophic for them. As it turned out, they did the opposite: in the true Aussie way, they came out swinging, and by doing so they forced the Pumas to play in a similarly up-tempo and expansive style. The result? A fairly ridiculous scoreline in favour of Australia and a fresh surge of momentum.
They come to Twickenham with certain advantages, reinforced by a few obvious English disadvantages. From the Wallabies' point of view, they've been playing together regularly for a considerable amount of time, settled on some interesting new combinations – they have some really special talent behind the scrum – and avoided the mistake of running too many Test rookies in the same starting line-up. The home team? They've lost Alex Corbisiero at loose-head prop, whose absence gives the Aussies a decent shot at parity at the set piece (and as history tells us, Wallaby parity there tends to make life extremely awkward for England). They'll also be without Geoff Parling, a steadying influence up front and a line-out caller of considerable expertise.
For these reasons, I give Australia a real show this afternoon – not least because they will draw confidence from their victory at Twickenham a year ago. That was a clever performance: their short kicking game, allied to the excellent performance of the open-side flanker Michael Hooper, caught England on the hop. They also enjoyed those little bits of luck crucial to maximising a good display. If they are similarly blessed with good fortune at Twickenham, I can see them winning.
There are those who might give them a better chance if James O'Connor was present and correct in their back division but, for the time being, he's one of ours at London Irish. I'm thrilled to have him: he's a major-league talent who wants to get back to playing some good, honest rugby in a good, honest environment. He's in our side for tomorrow's game with Northampton and I'm hoping he'll have me on the edge of my seat.
A whole lot of stuff has been said and written about James over the last few months, some of it complete rubbish. So, there were two or three Wallabies in their early twenties who committed some minor misdemeanours that put them outside the teamship rules. Shock, horror! I haven't heard James complain about anything that's happened to him just recently, but the way I see it, he has not been judged solely on what he did. He finds himself carrying the weight of a rugby country going through a purging process after a very difficult time, on and off the field. That's a heavy load for a young man to carry.
It will be good for him to get out of the fish bowl for a while and lead a normal life at a close-knit club fiercely protective of its traditional values. You have to remember that he pretty much went from school to the Wallaby Test team in one leap, since when he's spent his time in five-star hotels, with rugby followers genuflecting whenever he walks by. No wonder he needs a straightener! At London Irish, that's what we'll give him. When he eats his food after training, he might find himself sitting next to an academy player or he might share a table with Ian Gough, who is almost 37. And we won't be putting too much pressure on him, either. He has a free ticket to play his socks off.
Which brings me back to Twickenham this afternoon and the first leg of a Slam bid by the Wallabies. Right now, I'd say a clean sweep is beyond them: they have to go to Dublin, where things are buzzing under Joe Schmidt's coaching, and their last game is in Cardiff, where a strong Wales will have plenty to prove. But who knows? A massive performance will shorten the odds.