It was the worst start to an international match that Eddie Jones’ team had displayed in 2016, and it was clear that Australia had come to play. These days, however, it’s when the chips are down – such as when they went down to 14 men early on against Argentina – England show their strength.
Australia Bring their A-game – England Show their Strength
This was a different Australian team to the one England faced down-under back in the summer months. Not to take anything away from that historic away series whitewash, but the Wallabies were back at full strength yesterday, and their recent form has indicated they have begun to find their straps again.
Strike Runners Penetrated the England Defence
They pressurised England from the kick-off, breaking tackles at will and getting great go-forward ball from the contact area. It looked ominous as their strike runners penetrated the England defence and provided quick ball for their backs to attack.
The pressure told with Australia being awarded a penalty after three minutes in a perfectly positioned spot, however, Bernard Foley let England off the hook by yet again showing fragility in front of goal as he pushed his kick wide. Twickenham breathed a sigh of relief but there was to be no let up from the Wallabies.
Two minutes later, a disorganised England defence looked to have allowed Tevita Kurandrani to touch down, but the TMO footage showed the smallest of knock-ons from David Pocock. This brought the play back for an England scrum-five and the relief was evident on the faces of both Owen Farrell and Mike Brown.
War of Words
So then, the scrum. The war of words all week between coaches Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika was about this element of the set piece, but what effect would it have?
Of all the things that might have been predicted, no-one expected Australia to win one against the head. Truth is, England’s hooker Dylan Hartley had kneed the ball back to the Aussie side of the scrum in his attempt to hook, but the symbolism was powerful and I’ve no doubt that Cheika allowed himself the smallest of smiles before returning to the snarling, emotional spectating persona that he has become synonymous with.
The bigger symptom of England turning the ball over was that Australia now had attacking ball five metres out and they made full use of it. They were able to spread the ball across the back line to score on the opposite flank. Things looked ominous for the men in white.
But this England team is made of sterner stuff these days, and if there’s one thing that defines them under Jones, it’s their resilience and their belief that they can win from any position.
They needed to re-organise and regroup and they looked to their leaders in Ben Youngs, George Ford and Owen Farrell to bring them back into the match. A couple of penalties by Farrell brought them to within striking distance.
They also needed some luck and it came in the form of a mistake by Australian scrum-half Nick Phipps, who wrongly went looking for a penalty when Mako Vunipola found himself in an awkward position on the wrong side of a ruck. In reality, had Phipps concentrated on continuing the play rather than making the obvious move to try and draw the penalty, he would not have been caught in two minds and caused the subsequent chaos.
As it was, referee Jaco Peyper was having none of it and Phipps’ off balance pass to Sekope Kepu allowed the ball to spill loose and Farrell got a boot to it sending it up the field for a foot-race.
The bounce of the ball can so often determine the outcome of these types of plays, and in this instance it sat up beautifully for Jonathan Joseph to run in under the posts. Suddenly from being under the cosh, England were ahead.
But still Australia came, and their efforts won them two more penalties before half time to go in at the break ahead 13-16, although there was a sense that they probably should have been ahead by more and that that could be their undoing in the second half.
It was the third quarter of the game where England began to play and it was where Nathan Hughes came of age as an international player. He began to make serious and effective yardage and test the Australian defence. This helped raise the tempo for England leading to a deft kick through from Joseph which allowed Marlon Yarde to turn Israel Falou and outsprint him to the touch down.
English Bench Smelled Blood
It soon became the Youngs and Hughes show, and to add to the momentum, the English bench was ready to be emptied into the fray and they smelled blood.
Indeed, it was Youngs that provided England with the breathing space they needed when his quick tap from a penalty fifteen metres out allowed him to sneak over and score the try. In doing so, Youngs’ dummy and it’s resulting check of the opposing defence was reminiscent of Matt Dawson for the Lions in South Africa 1997 and he deserved his celebration after humiliating his opposite number Phipps.
The replacements, led by Jamie George for England, showed more impact that the Australian substitutes and the spark that the English reserves added to the contest just could not be matched by the men in gold.
It was not that they were dead in the water; indeed Australia showed their mental fortitude when a multi-phase attack allowed tight-head prop Kepu to demonstrate his hitch-kicking abilities as he skipped past the fresher Joe Marler and the quicker Owen Farell.
That Foley could not add the conversion said a lot about Australia’s inability to stay in the contest through the penalties they won and conversions they spurned. The lack of a reliable goal kicker just heaps more pressure on a side when they are chasing a game.
There was still time for another of the situations we have seen so frequently throughout this autumn, where World Rugby’s recent directives helped to turn an innocuous check by Dane Haylett-Petty on Mike Brown into a sin-binning offence that left the Australians with fourteen men for the final ten minutes of the game.
We all appreciate what the governing body are trying to do in order to protect the safety of players, but this incident left all who love the physical aspect of the game wondering where the line is really drawn.
A final interception try from the imperious Joseph sealed the win for England and capped a most enjoyable test match.
Australia certainly gave it their all and contributed to a wonderful contest. In the end though England were just too strong.