As every Australian outback resident knows, you can never be entirely sure what is lurking beneath the seat of the outdoor dunny. Eddie Jones is currently experiencing a not dissimilar sense of trepidation ahead of England’s eagerly awaited Twickenham date with the Wallabies, praying no further Covid ‘surprises’ are lying in wait to test his team’s already exposed undercarriage.
To lose one prominent loosehead prop, Joe Marler, to a positive Covid-19 test is unfortunate. To lose a second, Ellis Genge, may yet cause a serious issue if anything were to befall either Sale’s uncapped Bevan Rodd or Newcastle’s Trevor Davison prior to the teatime kick-off. A couple of days ago England were licking their lips at the prospect of piling into a depleted Australian front row. Now, suddenly, the Ugg boot is on the other foot.
It will certainly be a big ask for the previously low-profile Rodd to emulate the destructive impact that another Sale loosehead, Andrew Sheridan, used to have in this fixture. Twice, at Twickenham in 2005 and in the World Cup quarter-final in Marseille in 2007, he created such carnage that a generation of Wallabies tight forwards were left traumatised. If Jones fancies generating some more pre-game mischief he should lob the 42-year-old Sheridan an XL tracksuit and invite him to join England’s warm-up.
More practicable, perhaps, is to gather together his remaining players, assuming there are no more positive tests lurking in the shrubbery, and tell them to overlook the recent history of this fixture. Jones’s England have won seven straight Tests against Australia and outside World Cups there has been just one Wallabies win home or away since June 2010. Since Jones took charge in November 2015, furthermore, England have only once failed to put 30 points on his compatriots.
This, though, is an increasingly reconfigured England side. If anyone had predicted even a week ago the home side would line up against Australia with Manu Tuilagi on the wing and Rodd in the front row, even Jones would have raised a quizzical eyebrow. By entrusting Marcus Smith with the No 10 jersey, too, there is a new focal point. While there is a real sense something exciting is brewing, it remains to be seen whether the amber nectar will be completely perfect from the outset.
Maro Itoje, poised to lead the team out on the occasion of his 50th England cap, also believes the visitors are now a different proposition. “They are a better team now … we need to have our heads screwed on. In my experience the team that dwells on the previous results the most will suffer during the game. If we look at past games thinking we’ll win then we’ll be in trouble. We have to see this game as a fresh opportunity, attack it and have the mindset to really go after them.”
Australia, by contrast, will be super keen to play the roll of party poopers. If they had Quade Cooper and Samu Kerevi aboard they would be even more upbeat. But with Kurtley Beale at full-back and the outstanding Michael Hooper around to keep England honest at the breakdown there is theoretical hope – particularly if they start well and Scott Wisemantel, part of England’s inner sanctum not so long ago, has supplied some useful tactical tips.
But what if Smith, Owen Farrell, Henry Slade, Tuilagi and Jonny May receive some clean, front-foot ball and the rejigged jazz ensemble combines as Jones hopes it will? Even Farrell, back from last week’s false positive to wear 12, seems to be expecting big things and clearly does not share Jones’s aversion to hyping up talented youth.
“Probably the most special thing is his ability to unlock a game on his own,” Farrell said about Smith. “His ability to control a game and his team but with a sharpness to rip a game open in a blink of an eye is hopefully something he keeps going. He’s been doing really well in training; as far as him being himself and getting his game out there on the pitch, I don’t think that’s something people need to worry about.”
Coming from the seasoned Farrell, set to play his 100th international including his six Lions Test appearances, it is some drum roll. Not for some time will a capacity Twickenham audience head for the stadium with a greater sense of anticipation. Will it matter if England lose narrowly but display an attacking freedom that accelerates the team’s 2023 World Cup development? Not in the wider scheme of things.
When it comes to Anglo-Australian relations, though, old habits die hard. Farrell, for example, retains fond memories of his dad, Andy, engaging in ding-dong league battles between Great Britain and the Kangaroos and, even with an Aussie as his head coach, can still feel the hairs on his neck bristling. “It’s always been a massive Test match. There’s a fair amount of rivalry there so we’re looking forward to it. This is a big, big game … it feels that way during the week, regardless of people’s nationalities. Everyone can’t wait.”
His Saracens’ teammate Itoje feels the same way. “England v Australia across any sport, whether it’s cricket, rugby or drinking beer, is always fairly intense and the fans let you know about it.” Itoje reckons he would struggle to be picked in his country’s drinking XV – “I might be in the non-23 for that squad” – but out on the pitch it feels as if a fizzing English performance is bubbling under. Covid permitting, as per.