Fans hoping for some timely fireworks from England against Australia at Twickenham on Saturday were left sadly disappointed as the fuse fizzled out on a damp day at HQ. The home side’s scrappy win may have made it eight wins out of nine, five wins in a row at home and back-to-back victories over southern hemisphere opposition but those welcome stats and the result itself cannot hide the shortcomings evident in their performance.
With the World Cup kick off now less than two years’ away, this was almost a must-win game for the hosts. The countdown is well and truly on to the sport’s showpiece event and England needed to announce themselves as genuine contenders for the big one by bouncing back from their defeat to Wales in the Six Nations title showdown earlier this year.
It was also of paramount importance that they offered evidence that they remain on an upward curve following their series victory in Argentina and while victory over the Wallabies represents improvement having suffered defeat to the same opposition a year ago, that will bring little comfort to England head coach Stuart Lancaster having seen his injury-plagued side ride their luck and stutter to a win.
As expected, England packed a significant punch up front but despite that dominance at the scrum and the breakdown they found themselves desperately defending their lead in the closing moments of the game. It may have been a different story had fly-half Owen Farrell brought his kicking boots with three kicks sailing wide of the target in the first half and such errors – even allowing for the blustery conditions – are not acceptable for a player or a team that sets its standards much higher. This was a couple of days late to be a Halloween horror show and thankfully the rapidly-maturing Farrell would turn his performance and the game around.
England’s 2003 World Cup winning squad were paraded at half-time to mark the 10th anniversary of their victory over Australia but such glory is a dream for this current crop with their predecessors a somewhat distant benchmark. A decade ago, time and time again Jonny Wilkinson was able to capitalise on the industry of his forwards who in turn fed off their playmaker’s precision. Fast forward to today and instead it appeared that each Farrell failure sapped the strength of his pack. It also played on the team’s mental strength and a side so packed with muscle looked worryingly fragile at times.
As a result they failed to build on their impressive foundations and had to rely on good fortune – not the kind of game plan that wins World Cups. With Australia having stolen the initiative and the lead with a try from centre Matt Toomua it took some bloody mindedness – not found in most coaching manuals – to get England back into the game.
England flanker Tom Wood, who delivered the nearest thing to a fizzing catherine wheel, charged down a clearance from Australia scrum-half Will Genia that led to a try for his captain Chris Robshaw. And a second score from Farrell turned the game around although he was the beneficiary of some lazy running from replacement hooker Dylan Hartley who appeared to impede the Wallabies’ cover.
The consistency in terms of level of performance that Lancaster craves was absent in general but one player bucked the trend with the stand out performance. England fullback Mike Brown was the glaringly obvious Man of the Match having almost single-handedly lifted this contest out of the mire with a superb display that was the nearest thing to rocket seen all day. Assured every turn, he oozed confidence with ball in hand as he repeatedly jinked his way through the Wallabies’ defence.
England’s new centre pairing of Billy Twelvetrees and debutant Joel Tomkins could only dream of such assurance. They could not provide England with an attacking spark with errors blighting their attempts to shine while Twelvetrees had a day to forget with Toomua walking through his attempt at a tackle in the lead up to the visitors’ try. The midfield duo were not the only ones to fall short in defence with Chris Ashton unable to shackle Wallabies fullback Israel Folau in the lead up to that score – but to be fair to the winger, he is not the first and will definitely not be the last to be undone by one of the most dangerous players in the game and one of the few to explode into life in this game.
Folau’s talent is almost as bright as the boots he wears and while Tomkins struggled to impress on his Test match bow just two years after switching codes from rugby league, Folau continues to amaze with still less than a year under his belt in the 15-man code. Quite literally on a different level when it comes to the aerial game, he is equally dangerous with ball in hand and able to inject pace and create an opening where there appeared to be no daylight. The Wallabies have recently had to swallow a pay cut and it must be hard to justify cutting Folau’s wage given his increasing importance in the side and the future of Australian rugby in general.
Someone else with a significant future is fly-half Quade Cooper who only a few short months ago was sidelined with his international career seemingly in tatters. His rehabilitation from bad boy outcast back into world class No.10 – and even vice-captain – continued with another controlled performance that still included the odd gem from his box of tricks and some crisp distribution – but it was not enough to prevent yet another reverse.
Time is on their side and like England they need it because they are both some way from the rugby that would see them triumph when the real fireworks begin at World Cup in 2015.
Are either of these sides likely to be back at Twickenham when the World Cup is decided in 2015?