Streetwise Aussies douse England spirits
As the two team coaches drove off slowly into the dark Twickenham streets on Saturday night, a lacklustre firework display briefly erupted in the skies above them - a few bright rockets, the odd whizzer, and then nothing much to follow it all up.
It must have felt depressingly familiar to the England supporters staggering off in search of a final pint or two.
While their gold-shirted counterparts were gathered in groups around the spanking new stands, hoisting cans aloft and singing a song or two in support of Wales 130 miles to the west, those in white and red were left bemoaning another performance that promised much but delivered too little.
England weren't dismantled. For the first quarter of the game they were in charge. What they lacked, once again, were the characteristics that used to define the teams Martin Johnson used to captain - bags of Test experience, a battle-hardened streetwise edge, the ability to win the last 20 minutes and with them the match.
Jonny Wilkinson finished on the losing side despite a superb comeback to Test rugby
"We used a bit of nous out there," Wallabies coach Robbie Deans remarked afterwards, and that summed it up succinctly. Australia weren't spectacular, but they didn't need to be.
Despite shipping eight penalties in the first 40 minutes and kicking away plenty of possession, they held England at bay with growing comfort and then made increasing inroads with every attack they had.
Johnson's men had started as brightly as the autumn sunshine that filled the south-west London air. As Jonny Wilkinson's sweetly-struck drop-goal split the Twickenham posts after just two and a half minutes, there was a roar from the grandstands that was part welcome back and part excited expectation.
When a Wilkinson penalty sailed over soon after to make it 6-0, lips were smacked with anticipation, hip-flasks clinked together.
The old-stagers - Wilkinson, Steve Thompson, a marauding Lewis Moody - were enjoying their time in the spotlight, the Wallabies looking rattled.
Adam Ashley-Cooper punted poorly twice in quick succession, Will Genia decided to run alone at a wall of white and was snagged and pinged in a trice.
But, as the afternoon light faded, so did England's fire. First Genia dummied and darted to get his side on the board, then his forwards began to behave at the breakdown and invited England to run into them instead.
If Australia had come back into the match before the break, they dominated it utterly afterwards. While England failed to score a point for the final 55 minutes and almost never threatened the try-line, the visitors pinched one try from nowhere and tossed away two more from so close to somewhere that they must still be rubbing their eyes with disbelief.
That the star performers were the two young blades who had started so uncertainly will give Deans great heart for the future.
Genia was named man-of-the-match after a mature performance full of class
Genia was quick with his pass and silky-smooth with his running, looking a ready-made successor to George Gregan and Nick Farr-Jones and deservedly taking the man-of-the-match award.
Ashley-Cooper, meanwhile, must wish he could play at Twickenham every week. A year on from his debut here he produced another match-sealing try to go with the one from 12 months ago. If his Movember 'tache looks droopy, nothing else about his game does.
Johnson hasn't ever asked for patience, and he probably never will - it's not in his nature. Neither did he seek to hide behind the injury problems that have laid waste to his first-choice squad.
At the same time, his record as England manager does not make encouraging reading. He has now lost seven matches and won five; more tellingly, his England have only beaten sides ranked above them twice in 10 attempts.
"Our discipline had been very good, we'd stolen a few turnovers, but we came off the intensity before half-time and gave them the momentum, and these things build," he said afterwards.
"The second half we struggled to get out of our half, and when we did, we gave the ball back a little too easily and invited pressure back on ourselves. The try that killed us - we'd stolen the line-out ball and yet they scored in the corner.
"They are a team who have come straight out of a Test match against the All Blacks, straight out of a Tri-Nations series, and that probably told in the end a little bit. They were that little bit slicker, maybe that little bit more used to the pace of Test match rugby."
Johnson will be delighted with the performances from Wilkinson and Moody, happy with the impact made by replacements James Haskell, Courtney Lawes and Paul Hodgson, and content with the first full outing for Shane Geraghty.
While the Northampton centre had his flaky moments - witness the mishit left-foot chip that nearly led to a Wallabies score in the corner - the step and break that preceded it and a couple of other darts justified the selection.
Johnson also claimed afterwards that this experimental and callow side will be better for the experience of Saturday.
"It's like the opening game of the season if you're a club side," he said. "You do all that pre-season and then you lose the first game, it feels like the end of the world - but you wake up the next day and you've got the rest of the season ahead of you."
He's right. At the same time, Australia are also an evolving team. Before this match they were on a streak far worse than England's, the pressures on Deans much greater than those on Johnson.
They also had to deal with the jet-lag of a long flight over from Tokyo six days ago, while the Tri-Nations experience cuts both ways - one man's toughened-up is another man's battered and bruised.
They too have had injuries, not least to key man Berrick Barnes, yet the debut centre pairing of Quade Cooper and Digby Ioane looked Test class and hardened.
"The blokes really dug in there today," said skipper Rocky Elsom. "We held our composure and we wore them down, and I was really happy about that."
Australia have now won five of the last seven meetings between the two teams. For Johnson, whose reputation as a player was built on the dismantling of southern hemisphere superiority, it is one of several troubling statistics.