James Lawton: English rugby has no cause to be smug, even if Chris Ashton dazzles
There is a recurring sense of a team too easily pleased with itself
Turn up the spotlight, we are being told. Chris Ashton, having announced a full set of good intentions, returns to Twickenham hell-bent on casting himself in the hero's role against Australia.
Given the exuberance and bite of his best and least distracted performances, it could well be something worth anticipating with at least a dash of relish.
So, too, England's first serious autumn examination on the anniversary of their ludicrously bedraggled return from the World Cup in New Zealand.
Whatever the outcome against the bitterly smarting Wallabies, head coach Stuart Lancaster will surely still be in some considerable credit after the necessarily epic performance in returning the side to somewhere resembling professional reality.
Yet there remains an old nag when you consider the meaning of English rugby – and it has been gnawing away ever since the days of Sir Clive Woodward and the World Cup which came with a perfectly realised understanding of the team's natural strength.
It is the recurring sense of a team too easily pleased with itself, too regularly engrossed by its own idea of a serious future at the highest levels of competition. What perspective the relentless New Zealanders will bestow in the final stage of the series we do not know but Lancaster could hardly have been sanguine after reviewing the latest evidence of the flair and the sheer efficiency of Dan Carter and his team-mates.
Nor, some hard analysts insist, could he have drawn much if anything from last week's roll-over against a plainly inadequate Fiji.
The problem is that when we consider the talented Ashton's claim that he is about to display a late onset of professional responsibility, we are bound to feel a familiar scepticism. The green shoots of optimism simply do not grow in a way that might be reasonably expected of a rugby nation with such a huge playing population and commercial resources.
Of course there is no absence of those green shoots. Alex Goode, generally agreed to be England's most promising arrival in the slaughter of Fiji in that he showed a wit and a subtlety of movement more impressive than anything else on view, certainly saw no absence of the highest encouragement. "We are trying to evolve," he declared. "There will be a big improvement next week. If we play as well as we can do, then we are good enough to blow teams out of the water."
Which teams, Alex? Australia may be in disarray to the point where David Campese claims that coach Robbie Deans has destroyed their game – and the ease of the French victory last weekend certainly didn't weaken the argument – but they are unlikely to abandon all of their basic instincts this afternoon. South Africa and, ultimately, the All Blacks will inevitably be a different proposition. Blowing Carter and Co out of the water any time soon would surely involve dramatic measures, perhaps relocation somewhere between Putney and Hammersmith and a ready supply of depth charges.
Certainly the recent sharp debate between Ben Youngs – rated, dispiritingly for some of us, behind Danny Care as first-choice scrum-half – and Woodward carries a smouldering resonance into today's encounter.
Woodward's reflections on an essential weakness in England's play seemed pretty much self-evident for many. He said, "Your 9-10-12 unit has to pass the ball to a world-class standard. It sounds obvious but England have had some players in recent years who have been unable to meet this requirement."
Youngs, who two years ago suggested he might just be emerging as a half-back of natural-born intuition, could hardly have taken greater exception, declaring, "Clive is a hugely respected icon of the game who has achieved so much. But he's not involved so closely as he has been in the past and he only gets to see us on TV and not up close. I think there is room for improvement in all areas of my game – kicking, passing, decision-making – but I'm very happy and confident with my passing ability."
There was widespread critical agreement that when Youngs replaced Care and ravaged the last of the Fijian resistance, England began to look a rather more coherent team. Yet it is Care who gets the vote – and with a disciplinary record scarcely designed to make him the coach's pet. Two conclusions are provoked. One is that Lancaster may be inclined to agree with Woodward – and that Youngs is providing still another example of an England rugby player for whom withering self-examination is not the most natural impulse.
This is especially sad in that two years ago Youngs seemed to have announced himself as rather more than a handy contender. When Australia's Will Genia lost the ball beneath England's post, Youngs' instinct was superb. He conjured a try under the most intense pressure, passing to Courtney Lawes, who sent away Ashton on a long run to the line. Naturally, Ashton performed his "splashdown" and if some thought that was triumphalism of the most immature kind, it wasn't the only miscalculation.
The assumption was that England had found a quality that is intrinsic to the best of the sport, a nerve and a swagger which has always marked the teams who believe they have a right to be at the top of the game.
What we couldn't quite imagine then was that before such encouraging evidence was confirmed, England would have to endure the ordeal of becoming the laughing stock of the world game. That they have survived that gruelling humiliation and re-appeared as a team with a new set of professional values is no doubt something to celebrate today.
However, this doesn't stop the yearning for a glimpse or two of a new and altogether superior game.
Trott drops a clanger but is caught out by poetic justice
It was heartening to see a larger occupation of the terraces on the second day of the first Test, which was no doubt in part a tribute to India's seamless acquisition of another brilliantly authentic batting talent after the retirement of Rahul Dravid.
Cheteshwar Pujara's superbly watchful double century was the most welcome evidence that despite the gold rush of the Indian Premier League and other forms of pyjama cricket, the subcontinent can still produce players bountifully equipped for the real game.
Much less edifying has been the paucity of reaction, official and otherwise, to the astonishing decision of Jonathan Trott to claim a catch that had spilled, palpably, from his grasp.
Seekers of poetic justice no doubt saw some of it in Trott's swift dismissal as England stumbled in the foothills of India's massive first-innings total. Others could only speculate on the outrage if that most dubious of appeals had come from some sneaky foreigners.
Our Lady of Fatima keeps the faith with Mancini
Roberto Mancini believes in the power of prayer and has a special devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. Indeed, the City manager believes that the Virgin was on his side when last season's Premier League title was rescued in the last moments of the final game with Queen's Park Rangers.
He recently told an Italian author: "I understand that something impossible became possible that day – 13 May, the Feast Day of Fatima, the anniversary of the apparitions in Portugal."
However, we can be sure that the devout Mancini believes that his players are also obliged to help themselves – rather like the Christian Brother boxing coach who was asked by one of his charges: "Should I cross myself when the bell rings?"
"Please yourself, son," said the sturdy Christian, "but remember it won't mean a bloody thing if you don't work your jab."
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