Robinson backs faultless Hodgson to rule in rubble

Last year, Hodgson was the target of some mean-spirited derision from a home crowd still obsessed with the metronomical goalkicking accuracy of Jonny Wilkinson. They cared little that the injured World Cup-winner's successor in the No 10 shirt brought an entirely different set of values to the stand-off role, that the subtleties and sophistications of his passing game might, with some good fortune and a following wind, modernise the England approach sufficiently to give them a realistic chance of retaining the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2007. All they saw was a nervous marksman with a dodgy radar, and they gave him both barrels.

Today's contest, the first of the world champions' 10-match international campaign, is about many things: the rehabilitation of Ben Cohen and Mike Tindall as Test operators; the introduction of the freakishly powerful Andrew Sheridan to the front row; the progress of Lewis Moody as a breakaway forward of genuine world class, which is how the England coach Andy Robinson regards him. Principally, though, it is about Hodgson. Not the flustered and fretful Hodgson of last year, but the Hodgson of the here and now, his confidence reinforced by a near-faultless contribution to the Lions' tour of New Zealand and a series of brilliant performances at club level.

"The key to playing outside-half is to know your own mind," Robinson said yesterday. "Charlie now knows himself. He knows how to win games of rugby; he understands how to deal with that pressure. As an international 10, I think he's right up there."

The coach was also keen to see the Red Rose audience give Hodgson an even break. "We're trying to establish Twickenham as a fortress and everyone has his part to play, from the groundsman and the stewards to the supporters, " he continued. "We want to make it a tough environment for visiting teams and an uplifting one for the team in white." In other words, the public should back their man, not barrack him.

He certainly deserves better from the crowd than he received 12 months ago. Hodgson must be heartily sick of the endless comparisons with Wilkinson - who, it should be remembered, has not worn an England shirt for two years - but he continues to show the patience of a saint when he fields the inevitable questions about Jonny-boy in public. During the Lions tour, which he began as fourth outside-half out of four, he played more imaginatively and, crucially, more consistently than any of his rivals, and would surely have been picked for the final Test had he not been concussed during the last midweek game against Auckland. He is a high-class performer in his own right these days. This afternoon, he has an opportunity to press the point on his bar-room critics.

Of course, Hodgson will be as helpless as anyone if the England scrummagers fail to deal effectively with the Wallabies' time-honoured trickery at the set-piece and the loose forwards struggle to subdue Phil Waugh and George Smith in the loose.

"They're bloody annoying, those two," acknowledged Phil Vickery of Gloucester, who will assume control of the side should anything untoward happen to the captain, Martin Corry. "They're like Neil Back of old - always there, always in your face and over the ball. Waugh, especially, is like a rock. They will be very difficult opponents, as usual."

Except there is nothing "as usual" about these Wallabies. For the first time in almost 40 years, they have lost six successive Tests, and for today's game they have remodelled their back division, promoting the unfamiliar wings Mark Gerrard and Drew Mitchell and recasting Mat Rogers in the No 10 role at the expense of Matt Giteau. Rogers will certainly pose a threat, quite conceivably a unique one. "He was their outstanding player in Marseilles last weekend and he's earned the shirt," Robinson said. "He really is very dangerous."

Rogers is not alone, either. The presence of Lote Tuqiri, the former rugby league international, at outside centre rather than left wing has a whiff of peril about it, for together with Morgan Turinui, another solid citizen from down Sydney way, he poses a serious physical threat to the well-being of the English midfield. Tindall, playing out of position at inside centre, will have to be at his most astute, as well as his most committed, to hold the Wallaby pair as they move their side through the phases.

All things being equal, England have the forward power to suffocate the tourists. If the line-out, organised by Steve Borthwick of Bath, goes to plan - Steve Thompson, the Northampton hooker, is bound to have a good day with his throwing sooner or later - the Australians will struggle for possession. And even in this age of turnovers and counter-attacks, possession is nine-tenths of rugby union law.

"I think we have more options than Australia in the line-out," Robinson acknowledged, "but there are several components involved - calling, throwing, lifting, jumping - and each of them has to be right." The same goes for the England game as a whole. These Australians are eminently beatable; indeed, they cannot win a game for love nor money. But they are never less than competitive and they love nothing better than sticking it up the old country. This one could be closer than people imagine.

Today's Twickenham teams

England

15 J Lewsey (Wasps)

14 M Cueto (Sale)

13 J Noon (Newcastle)

12 M Tindall (Gloucester)

11 B Cohen (Northampton)

10 C Hodgson (Sale)

9 M Dawson (Wasps)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 S Thompson (Northampton)

3 P Vickery (Gloucester)

4 D Grewcock (Bath)

5 S Borthwick (Bath)

6 P Sanderson (Worcester)

7 L Moody (Leicester)

8 M Corry (Leicester, capt)

Replacements: 16 L Mears (Bath), 17 M Stevens (Bath), 18 L Deacon (Leicester), 19 C Jones (Sale), 20 H Ellis (Leicester), 21 O Barkley (Bath), 22 M Van Gisbergen (Wasps).

Australia

15 C Latham (Queensland)

14 M Gerrard (ACT)

13 L Tuqiri (New South Wales)

12 M Turinui (NSW)

11 D Mitchell (Queensland)

10 M Rogers (NSW)

9 G Gregan (ACT, capt)

1 M Dunning (NSW)

2 B Cannon (W Australia)

3 A Baxter (NSW)

4 H McMeniman (Queensland)

5 N Sharpe (W Australia)

6 J Roe (Queensland)

7 P Waugh (NSW)

8 G Smith (ACT)

Replacements: 16 T Polota-Nau (NSW), 17 G Holmes (Queensland), 18 M Chisholm (ACT), 19 S Fava (W Aust), 20 C Whitaker (NSW), 21 M Giteau (ACT), 22 L Johannson (Queensland).

Winning and losing Three crucial theatres of action

* GOALKICKING

Matt Giteau nailed England last year, not only by creating two exceptional tries but by capitalising on some lax English discipline with a couple of late penalties. By contrast, the world champions missed their kicks when it mattered. Giteau is on the bench today, but Mat Rogers' recent record with the boot is none too shabby. Charlie Hodgson, a reluctant marksman at times, is said to have regained his enthusiasm for the task, but he will need every last ounce of technique if he is to hit the spot in windy conditions made more awkward by the demolition of the south end of the stadium.

* SCRUMMAGING

As ever, the Wallabies will try it on. Eddie Jones, their coach, admitted this week that Australia produces fewer high-calibre props than any comparable nation and it shows, especially when the supremely crafty Bill Young is resting up back home. Matt Dunning and Al Baxter are today's pairing, and they can expect a severe grilling from England's gruesome twosome of Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery - always assuming that the scrum is a genuine contest rather than a circus. Sheridan has the attributes to reduce Baxter to his component parts, but he will have to keep his cool in the face of intense frustration.

* FINISHING

By common consent, Australia were one pass away from scoring four tries, maybe five, against the French in Marseilles last weekend, and had their strike-rate been just a little better, they might have ended their worst run of results since 1968-69. Hence the changes to their back-line - the shifting of Rogers to outside-half and the introduction of two new wings, Mark Gerrard and Drew Mitchell. Assuming the tinkerings produce a 10 per cent improvement in finishing, England will have to take every chance of their own to stay in touch. Happily, they have two natural finishers in Mark Cueto and Ben Cohen.

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