Twickenham’s autumn season opens on Saturday with two old rivals bearing the same problem – both England and Australia are in search of a successful shape and style.
There is no great harm in that. Modern international rugby is geared to a four-year World Cup cycle, and peaking at the right time is all, as today’s contestants did to be the finalists in 2003.
Life would undoubtedly be pleasanter for the two coaches, England’s Andy Robinson and the Australian Eddie Jones, if their teams were performing like New Zealand did last week in demolishing European champions Wales on their own turf. But Jones knows – and so do New Zealanders, whatever some may protest – that the All Blacks and their followers would give up every Tri-Nations and provincial Super-12 triumph of the past decade, and mortgage those to come over the next 10 years, in exchange for Australia’s victorious result at the 1999 World Cup.
World Cups are not won in the off-years, but neither is triumph rooted solely in the five or six weeks of the tournament itself. The English Rugby Football Union’s well ventilated anxiety that with less than two years until the next tournament starts there is no sign of an agreement over player release from the clubs that is essential to an ordered preparation, shows that the countdown is well under way.
The coming season will be crucial for Robinson and his hopes of emulating as head coach what he helped accomplish as an assistant in 2003. The clear sense that he is some way from being sure what his best team is, or precisely how they should be playing, is not as yet a serious problem. The same was true to an even greater extent of World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward a year into his tenure.
If the same can be said in 12 months, if another moderate autumn series has been followed by a mediocre Six Nations, worry will be infinitely greater, hopes of a successful defence correspondingly diminished. England must ignore the fact that their three Six Nations defeats last season might have been reversed, for the ability to turn close games, as England themselves did in 2003 and Australia have done in most World Cups, is what distinguishes the good teams from the others. So progress for Robinson’s men is all.
His restoration of four World Cup winners might appear retrograde but scrum-half Matt Dawson is the only true veteran in the quartet – prop forward Phil Vickery is 29, three-quarters Mike Tindall and Ben Cohen both 27. Tindall’s virtues have never been more obvious than in his absence, while Vickery’s return in particular points in a positive direction.
Discarding the Leicester duo of Graham Rowntree and Julian White will disappoint those traditionalists who like their props suitably gnarled, but the 55-stone front row combination of Vickery, Steve Thompson and Andrew Sheridan – not only built like a brick outhouse but capable, as a student of bricklaying, of constructing one – is formidable in a different way. Dimensions notwithstanding, this is not one of those troikas of shambling, scrum-fixated behemoths with which South Africa in particular has been wont to try beguiling the world.
As Vickery points out: “There’s much more to propping than the scrum. You’re expected to do a bit of everything.”
That the engaging Sheridan, completing a mobile trio of adept handlers, will be winning only his second cap – and first as a starter – comes as a shock after his performances for the Lions in the summer. He is appreciative of the contribution his club, Sale, have made to his rise: “It always helps to be in a successful team and one of the things we seem to do more of at Sale is live scrummage practice which – like sparring for a boxer – gives you a greater edge than all the drills.”
Nobody is drawing too many conclusions from Australia’s six-match losing run, noting that they have lost narrowly to the best teams in the world.
Even if they are short on power, they are invariably long on initiative and ingenuity – severe tests of which can do this England team nothing but good in the all-important medium-term.