Australia give naive England harsh lesson

 

What a difference a week makes.

Seven days on from abject humiliation in Paris, Australia came calling in London to give an old-fashioned lesson in attacking precision and defensive resolve to a side making slow progress to maturity.

We should expect Wallabies to be capable of bouncing back. We should equally expect better from an England side playing at home against opponents shorn of key men, confidence and recent results.

England had run out in front of a febrile capacity crowd wearing a new kit described in publicity material as 'regal purple'. It was designed, we were told, to reflect their standing as rugby royalty.

80 minutes of effort later, it was clear that the current incarnation are as yet only pretenders to the throne.

This was less a purple reign and too often a haze. Australia were far from indomitable. But by the end - traditionally attired, customarily competitive - they had salvaged something precious from a stuttering season, if not quite returned to the gold standard of old.

England's 20-14 defeat, for all their opponents' superior world ranking, represents a first genuinely significant setback for Stuart Lancaster's bright new regime.

Official match stats

England Australia

48%

Possession

52%

49%

Territory

51%

5 (2)

Scrums won (lost)

9 (1)

12 (0)

Line-outs won (lost)

13 (3)

13

Pens conceded

10

16

Turnovers conceded

12

86/90

Rucks won

92/96

23

Possession kicked

32

124 (14)

Tackles made (missed)

114 (120)

7

Offloads

10

0

Line breaks

4

(provided by Opta)

Only the incurably optimistic and those ignorant of history expected his side to return from the summer tour of South Africa with a Test win or two in their luggage.

This autumn is different. Now England are the team in familiar conditions and at the right end of their season, their southern hemisphere opponents weary and battle-worn.

David Campese was guilty of hyperbole when he claimed, earlier this week, that coach Robbie Deans had "destroyed Australian rugby".  He usually is. Yet in all the years the Wallabies have been coming to south-west London, this was a choice one to meet them.

Put that deep-rooted northern hemisphere paranoia and insecurity to one side. This Australia side are not the green-and-gold giants of old.

The thumping from France was no one-off; all three of their last defeats have been by margins of more than 20 points. They had scored just 12 tries in their previous 12 matches (the vintage of 2010 plundered 45 in 15) and none in their last two; Deans, beset by injuries and abject form, has picked 40 different players in this calendar year alone.

What they did have over England was Test match experience: double the number of caps in their starting XV, lock Nathan Sharpe with more international appearances to his name than the entire England pack combined.

That nous and know-how proved critical.

Where England were sometimes sloppy, Australia were tight. When openings appeared, they took what they could rather than what they wanted. When cool heads were required in heated moments, Deans's players kept calm while Lancaster's often rushed.

In defence they were unrelenting. At the breakdown they were aggressive and productive, slowing down ball and turning it over at key times. At the scrum - that weakness of old, an embarrassment against France - they held at least their own.

The stand-ins stood tall. Michael Hooper, the 21-year-old open-side, made light of David Pocock's absence. Scrum-half Nick Phipps provided a decent impression of Will Genia's speed of hand and foot; Berrick Barnes reminded us all of a talent that has not always flourished.

England can reasonably claim to have been just one firm hand from Thomas Waldrom away from heartening success. Had the number eight managed to touch the ball down as he reached across the line in the second half, rather than had it knocked from his grasp, then control of possession and territory would have been reflected on the scoreboard.

"It was a missed opportunity. England probably could, and should have won, or at least have taken a draw. Certainly they will rue not taking a couple of penalty opportunities that would have kept the scoreboard ticking over. But you have to give Australia enormous credit for their scrum, and in their tactical kicking they were superior. It is not back to the drawing board for England but they have a lot of work to do. The opposition doesn't get any eaiser and they have got the two best teams in the world to come, but hopefully that will bring the best out of England. It is going to be tough but they have to learn how to win Tests when they are not playing at their best."

Yet that was precisely their key failing. There is a fine line between adventure and pragmatism in Test rugby; finding it under extreme duress is a skill that takes time to develop.

Danny Care's quick tap penalty in the first half led directly to a momentum-snatching try. The decision to spurn three very kickable penalties in the second period did not.

Those weary of stodgy Englands of old will find little fault in a young side daring to take risks. Veterans of close contests won by narrow margins may beg to differ.

Lancaster afterwards was unrepentant about the decision to twice kick for the corner rather than posts. "I felt from there we could score the try. If we're going to give the players the confidence to feel they can go out there and play at international level, you have to back them."

Deans too was uncritical. "You make those decisions in real time. It's a reflection of what they're feeling in the contest."

Equally, his attitude to his own side's preference for kicking their own second-half penalties spoke of long experience and old war-wounds: "Sometimes you've just got to bank it and come again."

Stuart Lancaster 'frustrated' by defeat

Over-ambition was not England's only failing. Too often they went sideways in attack; too often they were out-muscled at the breakdown. The youthful front row sometimes struggled at the scrum, and the inaccuracy that had at times blunted their attack against Fiji a week ago was once again in evidence.

While the line-out was flawless, they conceded a monstrous 16 turnovers, failed to make a single clean break to Australia's four, and missed more than twice as many tackles.

"We're absolutely devastated to have lost the game," admitted Lancaster. His forwards coach Graham Rowntree agreed. "There are positives to be taken out, but we are gutted to have lost that game - gutted."

Results in these fixtures matter intensely to the spectators on both sides of the globe. In the long-term development of teams, they don't always carry the same significance.

England's 35-18 win in the last meeting seemed at the time to herald a new dawn for Martin Johnson's team; in truth it was a high-water mark that would never again be matched.

Lancaster's callow squad may in time come to view Saturday's defeat in similarly revisionist terms. Should they develop over the next few seasons into a side truly capable of contending for the World Cup on home soil in 2015, they may look back on this as a key lesson in their education, much as Sir Clive Woodward's team learnt to close out tight games by failing to do so in successive Grand Slam tilts until 2003.

But all those distant triumphs could also feel even more like ancient history should the same naivety and imprecision return against the Springboks and All Blacks in the next two weeks.

For all of the heartening signs of improvement since Lancaster first took charge at the start of the year, we do not yet know whether this is a side with potential to one day challenge the best or a wholehearted, likeable yet ultimately limited group.

To go into December with merely a single win over a thrown-together Fiji to show from four matches against the southern hemisphere would not quite lead to a winter of discontent. But it would leave Lancaster on a chastening run of just one victory in seven, heading into spring with all that precious early momentum thrown away on the autumnal winds.