It is not obvious why anyone should want to spy on England's training sessions, unless to provide indisputable evidence that the world champions really are as fragile as they have appeared over the past four months, yet the old notion of sporting espionage still rankles when a white-shirted touring side materialises in these parts. While Andy Robinson is nowhere near as obsessed with these matters as his illustrious forerunner, Sir Clive Woodward, there were a few frazzled nerve-endings on display here yesterday.
"I dare say they'll be around," said England's head coach when asked if he expected the men in trenchcoats and false moustaches to find their way into whatever greenery surrounds the visitors' training ground ahead of this weekend's opening Test against the Wallabies at the Olympic Stadium. "Security is hugely important. I've told the players to be aware, to keep their doors locked and avoid leaving things laying about."
Most international teams opt for "closed" training sessions these days, but there are ways and means of going about it. In this very city five years ago, the coach of the British and Irish Lions, Graham Henry, contrived to stage an important run-out on the Manly Oval, in full view of 3,000 locals. (Henry banned the media from attending, but clean forgot about Joe Public). In World Cup final week two and a half years later, Woodward arranged for England to train in something approaching top secret, only to find his team being filmed from a collection of houses overlooking the ground. "We thought we had the place completely blacked out, but we were wrong," confessed Robinson, then second in command.
If England's lack of trust in all things Wallaby is a direct legacy of the Woodward era, Robinson, in charge of an international side in Australia for the first time, is in no mood to press for a thaw in relations, even though his opponents have a new back-room team, two-thirds of which come direct from the red rose coach's beloved Bath. Maybe he has a point. As things stand, the home side do not have the foggiest idea whom they will face, in what positions, for the very good reason that this unfamiliar England team - no Martin Corry or Lawrence Dallaglio, no Mark Cueto or Josh Lewsey, no Steve Thompson or Danny Grewcock - is impossible to second guess. Any hard information would be priceless.
Robinson and his fellow coaches have awkward decisions ahead of them. For instance, there are three candidates for the full-back position alone in Iain Balshaw, Mark van Gisbergen and Tom Voyce. Jamie Noon, a regular at outside centre over the last year or so, faces a strong challenge from his colleague at Newcastle, Mathew Tait; Olly Barkley, equally capable in two roles, may or may not be picked as a stopgap No 10, depending on whether the selectors want to launch him on a long-term career at inside centre; and there are three scrum-halves, wildly different in all but their common inexperience at Test level. And we have not even started on the forwards.
There was scarcely a glimmer of light on these issues from Robinson, who will not reveal his hand until Wednesday in the hope that the Wallabies, secreted away in their training camp on the Queensland coast, will be the first to declare themselves. He reported that Mike Catt, recalled to colours in his 35th year, had made a helpful contribution in training, but refused to go an inch further. He agreed that Tom Varndell, the lightning-fast Leicester wing, had suffered the torments of hell in his last competitive outing - the Premiership final at Twickenham nine days ago - but stopped well short of ruling him out of contention.
All of which was of a piece with the Wallabies themselves. They, too, are in a state of uncertainty, particularly up front. Rumour has it that two inexperienced props, Greg Holmes and Rodney Blake, will anchor the scrum this time round, aided and abetted by a heavyweight back row shorn of the ball-winning capabilities of Phil Waugh, who appears to be struggling for a place on the bench.
"What has shocked me since coming in is the size of our pack," said Scott Johnson, the assistant coach who returned to Australia from Wales at the end of this season's Six Nations Championship. "I had this preconceived idea that we weren't that big, but we can match it with any side in the world. After being in the north, I can't say I've seen a pack bigger than ours. It gives us a base, and if we get it right technically, we can make it function."
The last thing that England need right now is a Wallaby pack that functions. This two-match trip may be short and sweet, but the time will pass agonisingly slowly if the Australians get the upper hand in the first Test on Sunday.Reuse content