England v Australia, Twickenham, November 7
England and Australia set to lock horns
Graham Jenkins
November 5, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson lookson during a training session, England training session, Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, England, November 4, 2009
England manager Martin Johnson finds reason to smile during training in Bagshot this week © Getty Images

England and Australia will rekindle one of the fiercest rivalries in international rugby when they go head-to-head at Twickenham on Saturday but the build-up to this latest showdown has been surprisingly low-key in terms of the verbal jousting.

The fact that these two giants of the game have been playing second fiddle to their hemisphere rivals for longer than they would care to consider may well have mollified the exchanges in the build-up to the game but rest assured that contest will have regained a venomous edge come kick off.

This weekend's clash offers an opportunity to make a significant statement. The eyes of the rugby world are set to centre on south west London, with the fear of failure set to ensure a full-blooded encounter to rank alongside some of the greats.

England manager Martin Johnson suffered a baptism of fire this time last year with crushing defeats at the hands of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand and the pressure is on to prove his side and his coaching prowess have come a long way in the 12 months since.

There was significant improvement in this year's Six Nations before a team shorn of its British & Irish Lions representatives shared a series with Argentina in the summer. However, this month's scheduled matches with the Wallabies, Pumas and then the All Blacks represent another step up in terms of intensity and expectation.

For Australia, this fixture is the first stop on their quest to emulate the Grand Slam glory of their 1984 predecessors. A repeat seems unlikely. A side bursting with potential, they have failed time and time again to fulfil that promise.

The Wallabies may well enter this latest meeting in possession of the Cook Cup thanks to a well-deserved victory last year but a woeful run of form of late leaves Robbie Deans' men struggling with their own demons. Six defeats in their last seven outings, albeit in the intense environment of the Tri-Nations, does not make for happy reading but they will no doubt take heart from a return to England's HQ where they have tasted success on two of their last three visits.

Injuries have taken their toll on both sides. The hosts are stripped of half of their first-choice line-up and it is a makeshift side that will take to the field this weekend. However, the return of talismanic fly-half Jonny Wilkinson and his fellow Rugby World Cup winners - hooker Steve Thompson and flanker Lewis Moody - ensures that they will not be taken lightly.

The presence of Wilkinson to an England shirt for the first time in 18 months in particular will be a powerful boost for Johnson. The 30-year-old has found a new lease of life since his summer move to Top 14 side Toulon and his return to form will see him anchor England's attack with the game plan set to be tailored to the No.10.

Interestingly, England have won 78% of their matches with Wilkinson since his debut in 1999 but only 47% of Tests when he has been absent. It is the figure of 70 caps and the experience that has brought him that will prove most valuable to a starting side short on Test caps, with nine players having secured 13 international appearances or less.

Wilkinson's resilience is matched by that of Thompson who will complete a remarkable comeback from what appeared to be a career-ending neck injury two years ago. He last pulled on the England No.2 jersey in 2006 before he underwent neck surgery and was warned by medics to quit the game or risk paralysis. A second opinion opened the door for a playing return and Thompson has since benefited from life on the continent with Brive. He forced his way back into the England ranks earlier this summer and he is rewarded yet further with a place in the starting line-up this weekend.

Australia also have their fair share of injury concerns with playmaker Berrick Barnes the latest high-profile casualty, joining Nathan Sharpe and Stirling Mortlock on the sidelines, but they can boast a more settled side than their hosts. But such is the pressure on Deans and co that he is prepared to gamble. As a result Digby Ioane and Quade Cooper will form an untried and untested centre combination as part of the changes in the wake of their latest reverse at the hands of the All Blacks in Tokyo last weekend.

Unsurprisingly veteran George Smith returns to the Wallabies' ranks in the hope he can once again give England a headache at the breakdown. He played his part in what was a superb Wallabies' forward effort at Twickenham last year and they will be confident of a repeat. Fly-half Matt Giteau was a thorn in England's side that day and he will be pulling the strings for the visitors once more on Saturday and new skipper Rocky Elsom is sure to add his usual dynamic edge.

It appears Australia have one eye firmly on the Rugby World Cup in 2011 while England's focus is well and truly on erasing the bad memories from last year and that drive should give them the edge - just.

England: U Monye (Harlequins); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), D Hipkiss (Leicester), S Geraghty (Northampton), M Banahan (Bath); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), S Thompson (Brive), D Wilson (Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), T Croft (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), J Crane (Leicester).

Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), D Bell (Bath), C Lawes (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Francais), P Hodgson (London Irish), A Goode (Brive), A Erinle (Biarritz)

Australia: A Ashley-Cooper (Brumbies); P Hynes (Queensland Reds), D Ioane (Queensland Reds), Q Cooper (Queensland Reds), D Mitchell (NSW Waratahs); M Giteau (Brumbies), W Genia (Queensland Reds); B Robinson (NSW Waratahs), S Moore (Brumbies), B Alexander (Brumbies), J Horwill (Queensland Reds), M Chisholm (Brumbies), R Elsom (Brumbies, capt), G Smith (Brumbies), W Palu (NSW Waratahs).

Replacements: T Polota-Nau (NSW Waratahs), M Dunning (Western Force), D Mumm (NSW Waratahs), D Pocock (Western Force), L Burgess (NSW Waratahs), R Cross (Western Force), J O'Connor (Western Force).

Referee: Bryce Lawrence (NZ)

Assistant referees: G. Clancy (Ire), Tim Hayes (Wal)
Television Match Official: Jim Yuille (Sco)

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