- 29 Sep 07, 02:13 AM
Paris - And so it came to pass. Next Saturday, as expected, we’ll be settling down to watch England against Australia do battle for a fifth time at a Rugby World Cup.
Two wins apiece (Australia in 1987 and 1991, England in 1995 and 2003) so far, a chance for one country to edge ahead, and into this year’s semi-finals.
Four years on from that night of nights in Sydney though, the roles will be reversed.
Considerations of form and class ensure the Wallabies will start warm favourites, while England will no doubt revel in their underdog status this week.
The question therefore appears to be this: How much have England improved in the past fortnight since their 36-0 rout by the Springboks? And will it be anywhere near enough to knock the confident Aussies out of their stride?
The answer to the first part is undeniably plenty, but then they were starting from a pretty low level. Likewise the quality of the opposition has to be factored in.
Samoa and Tonga both caused England problems, but neither are on a par with South Africa, who inhabit a similar plain to Australia.
“We are still not playing to our full potential,” said England coach Brian Ashton after the victory over Tonga. “We are slowly moving along the road to getting near it, but we are going to have to move up a gear, at least, next week.”
Captain Martin Corry said England are still a “developing side”, but believes there were signs against Tonga “of a team which is growing in confidence”. “When we see an opportunity, we take it,” he added.
That was certainly the case for Paul Sackey, who scored with both the chances he had.
It could also be said of Jonny Wilkinson, who created Sackey’s first with a superb bit of quick-thinking and execution, whose first drop-goal eased England into a lead they never lost, and his second late on removed any doubt about the outcome.
Incidentally, Wilkinson has extended his record tally of drop-goals in World Cups to 12, in 12 matches, and his ability to take the three points on offer remains a potent weapon, even if he is still struggling slightly, by his own standards, with his goal-kicking.
Mathew Tait and Andy Farrell also finished their opportunities well. The worry for Ashton would be that for a side enjoying set-piece dominance, England didn’t actually create that much with the 54% possession they had.
Still, from the depths of despair two weeks ago, two four-try victories against tough Pacific Island opposition are not to be sniffed at.
Ashton must now decide whether to shuffle his resources against the greater threat posed by Australia. He hinted, albeit indirectly, that at least one change is likely.
Asked how he thought his midfield combination fared, the head coach chose not to talk about individuals, as is his wont.
But his response betrayed a certain unease at the prospect of facing the supremely talented Matt Giteau and the hugely powerful Stirling Mortlock, assuming he is fit, with the centre combination he fielded against Tonga.
“Like in any international you have got to be able to defend, because it is an area a lot of sides target, you have got to have game management, and thirdly, you have got to have players who are very direct,” Ashton said.
Unfortunately for Olly Barkley, he didn’t pass muster in any of those criteria on Friday, whereas Farrell gave the impression of wanting to impose himself on the game from the moment he arrived, and largely achieved his aim.
Barkley impressed at fly-half in Wilkinson’s absence against the USA, but the two haven’t gelled in the way Ashton would have hoped in the last two games.
So should he look to tweak his combinations elsewhere?
If Jason Robinson has recovered from his damaged hamstring, he will likely return at full-back to provide an extra attacking spark, with Josh Lewsey probably reverting to the wing in place of Mark Cueto, who faces a scan on a hamstring strain.
There may still be lingering concerns over Sackey’s defensive prowess, but his pace and opportunism in the past two games have proved his worth.
In the pack, the front row are all in good form and should be left alone, with Phil Vickery remaining on the bench.
Does Ashton bring back Simon Shaw after his ‘rest’ against Tonga, or retain Steve Borthwick alongside Ben Kay, a combination which showed up well around the field as well as at the line-out against Tonga.
The back row remains a conundrum, and is still lacking balance, but Corry, Lewis Moody and Nick Easter all did well enough individually against Tonga.
Personnel issues are likely to be secondary. The real decisions this week, Wilkinson implied, are in the players’ heads.
Jonny spoke of the need for courage in the ability to take risks, to aim beyond simply “trying to sneak through, or to not to lose, but to try to win”.
It was an interesting insight into the team’s mindset, and illustrated the difference between now and four years ago.
In 2003 England went into the final expecting to win, and with the conviction to do so when the Wallabies refused their will right up until the final minute of extra-time.
This England team patently do not have that confidence that comes from having won a string of big matches together, but they will approach next week’s quarter-final with hope nonetheless.
“We don’t know how good we can be, and that is a boundary we are always looking to push,” said Corry.
Next Saturday afternoon, in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, we will find out how far.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.