Yesterday at Twickenham, England produced an inspired performance to dominate the visiting Wallabies to the tune of 35 points to 18 and take their first home victory against a Tri Nations team for four years. Each team scored two tries, with the winning margin coming from a faultless kicking display from fly-half Toby Flood – with two conversions and seven penalties.
These statistics, however, flatter Australia to some extent, because, for most of the match, England dominated at the tackle contest, both with and without the ball, won the gain line decisively and generally “out-Wallabied” the Wallabies. In recent weeks, Wallaby stocks have risen, mainly on the back of some enterprising performances from their back-three – Beale, O’Connor & Mitchell/Turner – and their halves – Cooper & Genia. Yesterday, however, it was the England back-three of Foden, Ashton & Cueto and their halves, Flood & Youngs, who provided all of the intent and vision. They backed it up with pace, skill and superb footwork rarely seen at ‘headquarters’ – at least, not from the home team.
So much for the attack. On the other side of the coin, England were equally dominant in defence and consistently drove back the Wallaby ball-carriers. For most of the match – save for a period in the second half – the gain line was only a distant blur for the Australians, and it’s difficult to see how this can be improved in the immediate future, given the players available. Tatafu Polota-Nau is one who comes immediately to mind, but, in his current position, he would replace Stephen Moore, who was head and shoulders above any other Australian forward. Just a thought, but I presume that the selectors know that Tatafu has frequently played at prop in club rugby in the past. Importantly, he is our most explosive forward in both ball-carry and tackle, and is the strongest player in the squad.
On the statistics, Australia missed roughly ‘one in ten’ tackles. This is just not acceptable, but, indeed, it looked even worse to me. Dominant tackles by the visitors were non-existent. There was a total lack of urgency in our realignment in defence, whilst England looked positively ravenous for another taste of blood. I lost count of the number of times that England gained the overlap – sometimes with two or three men extra.
England matched the urgency of their realignment in defence with the same in attack – both in the phases and in the counter. This is a real ‘hobby-horse’ of mine; it is very simple, technically and physically – sometimes requiring nothing more than one or two steps backwards, to be in position to receive an urgent clearing pass. Ashton’s second, long-range try was evidence of this – an eagerness, a desire to play, to ‘seize the minute.’ [Just by the way, I thought that the tackle by Palmer on Genia, immediately preceding Ashton’s breakaway try, should have resulted in a penalty to Australia, and a yellow card to Palmer, for ‘deliberately and cynically failing to release the ball-carrier’.]
England had indeed given us a preview of this capacity in the closing stages of the previous week-end’s match against New Zealand. During the week, I had written this off as another example of “a team only trying to win, after the game had been lost’; another team with “not enough bottle to risk failure in order to achieve success”. Indeed, I said as much, but I was clearly wrong. It looks as though the players have convinced their conservative coaching staff that there is another way to play the game – indeed, one that they are well capable of handling. If this is so, then well done to them. We should have anticipated this approach with the selection of the much more mobile Dylan Hartley over the stronger scrummaging Steve Thompson, but we could never have anticipated the extent.
Full marks also to England’s tactical approach in denying possession to the dangerous Wallaby attack, by the simple means of keeping the ball in-hand. This worked an absolute treat and gave them ample opportunity to seek out Quade Cooper for a test – or three! Cooper failed miserably and the selectors must be beginning to wonder if they can continue with the luxury of his selection, given the huge cost involved – great attacking player though he clearly is.
Australia on the other hand showed no respect for England’s attacking ability – strange this, remembering their display last season against France, and more recently, against New Zealand. The Wallabies may have set a new record for ‘the number of chip kicks in an international’, as they consistently sought the easy option for a ‘cheap score’. It doesn’t work that way when the stakes are this high. Further, the ridiculously ambitious decisions to kick for goal early in the match, simply handed possession over and took the pressure off the England defence. As was the case in Cardiff last week, we had no appetite for the real contest.
Last June, after the second test between Australia and England, in Sydney, I wrote, “On current form, and in my assessment of their respective potential, I don’t see either team as winning quarter-finalists next year, and, of the two, I see England as the more likely to alter my opinion.” Yesterday, at Twickenham, they went a long way to doing just that.