Oval Talk

England’s Baa-Baas baptism of fire

Oval Talk

View photo

The last time England manager Martin Johnson was on a rugby field in Perth, Clive Woodward's side overcame South Africa in their crucial 2003 World Cup pool match.

Johnson is not one to reminisce, however, and the current crop of tourists take on a testing Australian Barbarians XV with 10 capped Wallabies included among their ranks.

Topping the bill for the hosts will be the richly talented playmaking midfielder Berrick Barnes (pictured), who inexplicably cannot force his way into the elite side.

The undercard will hardly have England chuckling with disdain either: James O'Connor, the prodigy at full-back, and Lachlan Turner, the hugely talented left wing will provide a cutting edge.

Johnson's reaction to the Australian Barbarians team on the table expressed a knowing inevitability, and he has talked about his expectation of a fast-paced, extremely competitive fixture.

Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw will skipper an equally strong England side at the ME Bank Stadium, and he is joined by senior Test regulars Lee Mears and Ugo Monye.

Johnson will spend the next 36 hours deciding if the recently sidelined Jonny Wilkinson should assume a starting spot in the Test side to face the Wallabies in Western Australia at the weekend after confirming the fly-half's fitness.

The selection of Charlie Hodgson behind the scrum is a major indicator that Wilkinson will be given the nod, and that is as it should be. To have the old hand at outside half is surely essential for England to be competitive.

Johnson must be the envy of Fabio Capello - as an England manager with a World Cup to his name and a fully fit squad to choose from - but Australia have numerous selection problems to contend with.

The Wallabies, easy winners over Fiji in Canberra last week, have serious issues in the front row with prop Ben Alexander out with a knee injury, while fellow forwards Benn Robinson and Stephen Moore are also incapacitated.

For a much improved scrummaging unit, the loss of the trio and second-string hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau is sure to provide a stern test of their strength in depth and the versatility of the pack.

Australia coach Robbie Deans has already ruled out recalls for veteran props Al Baxter and Matt Dunning, and so it will be a rookie front row which is called into battle in Perth.

Johnson still talks emotively of his side's "gut-wrenching" and "heartbreaking" two-point loss to France in the Six Nations, and there is no doubt that the England manager is fiercely determined to right a few wrongs on this five-match tour.

"We have got a good squad, but we have to perform because only a bloody good team wins a Test match in the southern hemisphere," he said.

"We've got to keep the momentum from what we did against France; continue to do the good things we did in that game and do them better to win."

That is the challenge laid down by Johnson, a ruthlessly driven man who won everything and has now come back to where it all began, aiming to continue the process of doing it all again.