Dominant scrum fails to paper over the cracks for Johnson
There is a theory that in rugby it is impossible to win without a functioning scrum.
In Perth on Saturday, however, Australia proved the exception to the rule as they ran out 27-17 winners over England despite conceding two penalty tries.
Rarely can an international match have been contested by two more contrasting teams.
Australia, shorn of their entire first choice front row, were always going to feel the squeeze at scrum time, but few would have predicted quite how one-sided this contest would prove to be.
Unfortunately for England, the visitors came a distant second best in all other aspects of the game.
Despite several periods of concerted pressure on the Australian line, England never looked like crossing the whitewash. This was typified in the second half by Simon Shaw trying yet another pick and go, only to be driven backwards by Australia’s lightweight half back pairing of Luke Burgess and Quade Cooper.
Shaw has been a great servant to England over the years, but age is clearly catching up with the 37-year-old and Martin Johnson needs to realise this whilst there is still time to groom a successor before the World Cup.
In contrast to England, Australia were deadly with ball in hand, with Cooper pulling the strings. Despite the absences of Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper, the Aussies were devastating at running back England’s aimless kicking.
Drew Mitchell counter-attacked brilliantly to set up the hosts’ first try for captain, Rocky Elsom. Then Burgess, in his most accomplished international performance to date, sent Cooper through for the second try.
The gap at half time could have been wider but for Australian handling errors when well placed.
In the second half England finally found a weapon as the Australian scrum crumbled under pressure. A first penalty try brought them back into the game, but Australia responded immediately. Cooper floated an exquisite ball out to Digby Ioane and collected the return to score his second try.
Although England were able to add a second penalty try, dubiously awarded by Welshman Nigel Owens, a win would have flattered the visitors.
England now have one week to try to add something more to their game before they meet Australia again in Sydney. Johnson will surely make some personnel changes, with Danny Care being tipped for the chop after another insipid display.
Shontayne Hape and Nick Easter, both desperately poor in Perth, will also need to impress in training this week.
However, regardless of these changes, unless Johnson changes his tactics to at least pose the Australian defence some questions, penalty tries will remain England’s most likely source of points.