Christmas did not exactly come early for England but their turkey will taste a little better following their final outing of the year.
Stuart Lancaster’s side saved the best until last with a dominant 26-17 victory over Australia to add some much needed gloss to a largely disappointing end of year campaign.
It was a far from perfect performance with errors and inaccuracies still painfully evident but that will not concern head coach Stuart Lancaster in the immediate aftermath of this clash as this was a game that England simply had to win.
Defeats to New Zealand and South Africa raised many questions that a victory over Samoa only went a little way to answering. Another loss would have turned up the heat on Lancaster and sowed another seed of doubt that would have taken root in the two months before they begin their 2015 Six Nations campaign.
England were also in danger of falling worryingly behind their Six Nations rivals with Ireland, Wales, France and Scotland all able to reflect on victories over Rugby Championship opposition in recent weeks and sizeable rather than marginal gains in their preparations for the World Cup.
Such successes have been rare for England since Lancaster took charge and this win – only their third in 14 clashes against the southern hemisphere giants of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – and instils priceless belief in a squad that they can not only compete but beat the world’s best.
Many would have you believe that the result will have little impact on the meeting between these two sides at the Rugby World Cup but don’t be fooled – especially given the nature of England’s victory.
A dominant England pack – that was missing the sizeable talents of the likes of Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Dan Cole, Alex Corbisiero and Tom Croft – bullied their Australian rivals at scrum time and in doing so reopened some old wounds that may fester in the coming months.
To deny that this result will serve as a significant psychological blow ahead of their Pool A showdown in October next year would be not only naive but also dangerous so expect Wallabies coach Michael Chieka to address their shortcomings as a matter of urgency.
This result will also serve as a most welcome fillip before England take on another World Cup pool rival in the form of Wales in their opening Six Nations clash in February but they must know it will take so much more if they are to lift the sport’s biggest prize.
Two-try hero Ben Morgan may have claimed the official Man of the Match honour and made the No.8 shirt his own having started the month among the replacements, but Courtney Lawes was arguably more impressive in the 53 minutes he played before taking a well earned break.
The all-action lock was at his industrious best on his way to 12 tackles – including one try-saver on Australia’s Adam Ashley-Cooper. A towering presence in the lineout and ball hungry in the loose, his value to Lancaster and England cannot be underestimated.
But this England victory was not just built on brute force. It was their most intelligent performance of the autumn and suggests they are not only rolling with the punches but learning from their mistakes.
Guided by the increasingly-assured presence of fly-half George Ford, who will surely continue in the role for the Six Nations, England’s game management was excellent.
Wary of the multiple threats in Australia’s back division, England played the game in the right areas with a clever kicking game, along with a superb kick chase, largely shackling their rivals.
In doing so, England conceded territory and possession with Australia dominating both in the match stats, with 70% and 66% respectively, but the talent-heavy Wallabies were thwarted time and time again by a resolute England defence.
It creaked alarmingly at times but England’s effort without the ball was outstanding with their tackle count of 158 dwarfing Australia’s 48. The commitment shown by the side as whole was best illustrated by the crunching tackle from centre Brad Barritt on Australia’s Quade Cooper in the closing moments of the game.
The ferocity of the challenge, and the sickening head clash that left yet more blood on Barritt’s already battle-scarred face, forced Cooper to knock on and another Wallabies move to stutter to a halt, for it was not the first to be snuffed out by the hosts.
Errors littered Australia’s game, many forced by a tenacious England defence, but you could not help but think a gruelling schedule that has seen the Wallabies play 15 Tests in 25 weeks had taken a toll both physically and mentally.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the turmoil both on and off the field in recent months, Australia are not in a great place right now and they must now reflect on three defeats on an end of year tour for the first time since 2005.
They offered only glimpses of their dangerous best and their discipline and execution – not only at scrum time – left a lot to be desired with even the usually supreme Israel Folau guilty of uncharacteristic errors.
As a result, Chieka will be hoping that Santa delivers on a Christmas list that is sure to include a magic wand or he may struggle to stomach his king prawns.