England 14 Australia 20: Lessons as Red Rose lose at Twickenham
England 14 Australia 20: James Thompson looks at the key talking points as the hosts come undone against the Wallabies
England left to rue key decisions
After they get over the disappointment of losing to the Australians, England will look at this game as an opportunity missed. While the visitors played the majority of the rugby and deserved their victory, the hosts will feel that although they never really got going, they managed to stay in touch. They led at half-time following a Manu Tuilagi try in response to a Nick Cummins effort. In the second half, England captain Chris Robshaw was fully justified in instructing Toby Flood to kick for the corner rather than the posts, as he believed they had enough time to score and take the game to the Wallabies. England only needed a converted try to take the lead but they spurned three kickable penalties which would have led them to victory. Robshaw is still a novice at international level and learning on the job, and while the manner of this defeat was disappointing, it may help this young England team become more tactically aware and ruthless in the future.
Just what is it with Australia and open side flankers?
When influential Australian flanker David Pocock was ruled out mid-week with a new calf injury, England fans may have breathed a collective sigh of relief. With the importance of a specialist open side flanker on the rise, many would have expected the loss of Pocock to be hugely detrimental to an already weakened Australian side. What they didn’t count on was Australia having a more than capable back-up waiting for his opportunity in Michael Hooper. He delivered a man-of-the-match performance and was a consistent threat all over the field. He broke the line in the first half with a storming run when he ghosted past Tom Youngs and Australia managed to convert the break into three points with a Berrick Barnes drop goal. Hooper was a nuisance at the breakdown, helping slow England down and turning the ball over as he showed he could do the basic things well. He inspired the team around him and will have given the Australian selectors a headache when Pocock is fit again.
Alexander the great
Following the Wallabies mauling against the French last weekend where their pack conceded a penalty try, many were expecting England’s scrum to dominate Australia. However, they didn’t count on a returning Ben Alexander, who delivered a scrummaging master-class against a young English front row. Joe Marler, the Harlequins prop, has enjoyed a fine start to his international career, filling in for the injured Alex Corbisiero but he was left wanting in the face of Alexander’s onslaught. The Australian never allowed Marler to get his body position in the scrum correct and he created a stable platform for the visitors to dominate. With neither side setting the world alight with their backlines, penalty infringements at the set-piece proved crucial and Marler was penalised in both 22s. It allowed Barnes to kick simple penalties and importantly it disrupted English momentum on the few occasions they ventured into the Australian half. Stuart Lancaster reacted in the second half and brought on Mako Vunipola who attacked a weary Alexander in the way he had done to Marler. Vunipola will be full of confidence and as Marler didn’t produce, he will surely be in the starting line up next weekend.
Wallabies played smart
Australia travelled for the end of season tour severely depleted, with a number of first-team players such as Will Genia, Quade Cooper and James Horwill missing due to injury, and after losing to France, many viewed them as ripe for the taking. Coach Robbie Deans has come under increasing pressure back home for a poor Rugby Championship performance over the summer but it must be noted that Australia were the team to deny New Zealand a world-record 17th straight win with a draw in Brisbane. When written off, Australia seem to always defy the odds and attacked the English from the start with absolute relish. Despite missing key men, Kurtley Beale has stepped into the void at fly-half and England had no answer to his invention and guile. Australia seemed aware of the English blitz defence and on a number of occasions looked to chip the ball behind the onrushing defence, a tactic that left the hosts scrambling. The backline were composed if not explosive, and their pack followed suit, with the returning Alexander and captain Nathan Sharpe ensuring they were solid in the scrum and lineout respectively. Whereas England were perhaps a little naïve and didn’t take penalty opportunities, Australia played smart and their try in the first half was a wonderful example of their awareness as they exploited gaps in a ragged English defensive line. It was perhaps an injustice that they went in behind at half-time but they fully deserved their victory on Saturday evening.
It’s not all doom and gloom
Many in the English press may criticise Lancaster’s men for the loss, and while it could prove critical in the all-important end of season rankings which determine seedings for the next World Cup, there were some encouraging signs from England’s performance. Danny Care is fast evolving into an international class scrum-half, one wayward box attempt aside, his kicking from hand was solid and he’s always looking to force the tempo, whether from a ruck or a tap-and-go penalty. With Ben Youngs waiting in the wings for any drop in form, it is an area for strength at the moment. While Care has got better and better, so too has his club and international captain Robshaw. He’s not a natural open side but has stood up well at international level with some strong running and quick hands. He has a more difficult adjustment that most as he has to grow into the captain’s role as well and while he will rue certain decisions on Saturday, it’s these setbacks that will allow him to be a more effective leader in future. Finally, the introduction of Vunipola and Joe Launchbury from the bench created greater attacking impetus for England with some rampaging runs in the loose and both will be pushing hard for their first starts next week.