Australia catch fire as England are doused
It is possible, as Australia proved on Saturday, to rise from the ashes of grim sporting failure within a week. The bad news for England is that the gruesome twosome of South Africa and New Zealand are now bearing down, studs glinting and nostrils flared in anticipation. Unless Stuart Lancaster’s side can make rapid improvements the latest in a familiar sequence of cruel, grey, English autumns is looming.Make no mistake, this was a sobering, sombre result on several levels. Even if the dark implications for England’s 2015 Rugby World Cup pool draw are ignored – at this rate they could find themselves sharing the same one as the All Blacks and Wales – a gallant Wallabies side exposed all the same fault lines Lancaster inherited. Poor decisions, insufficient composure, mediocre passing skills, problems at the breakdown . . . tick, tick, tick and tick.
This performance also shone harsh torchlights on certain individuals. Chris Robshaw is a popular captain but he was left coughing and spluttering in the vapour trails of Michael Hooper on Australia’s flank.
The best teams in the world have a complementary blend of power, pace and agility across their backrows, and at least one gain-line thunderer in the secondrow. England, however, do not possess balance in either area and, as a result, struggled to wear down opponents who showed far more resilience than they had done in Paris the previous week, when they lost 33-6.
There was a visible difference when Joe Launchbury, Tom Wood and Mako Vunipola came on and at least two of that trio should start against the Springboks while changes in the backs also now appear unavoidable.
Manu Tuilagi still looks at this level like a wing playing in the centre and Jonathan Joseph should wear 13. Inside him there is a case for Lancaster going for broke with Freddie Burns at 10 and perhaps even considering his Gloucester team-mate, Billy Twelvetrees, at 12, on the grounds that the home team need to run straighter, ask more questions and make the Springboks defence think more than Australia’s had to.
Shifting the midfield deckchairs, though, will be immaterial if quick ball remains elusive. Both Danny Care and Ben Youngs at scrumhalf are desperate to play with tempo but neither displayed accuracy or judgment and never put a calming foot on the ball.
The tap-and-go decisions in front of the posts which cost England a crucial six points are symptomatic of a more widespread condition; England are trying to play a brand of rugby that not all of their players have the necessary tools to implement.
Nor does it help when England play like duffers while wearing unfamiliar plum. It continues to be an affront to the senses when commercial greed forces the national side to perform fashion cartwheels at the expense of tradition, taste and common sense.
The contrast was at its most striking whenever Berrick Barnes or Kurtley Beale had the ball; the numbers on their back mattered far less than the deftness of touch and accuracy which this pair consistently displayed. Out on the right wing, the shaggy-haired Nick Cummins was enthusiasm personified, and while Phipps’s 35th-minute scoring pass looked distinctly forward, the wing fully deserved his “first piece of Test meat”, as he charmingly called it.
Despite everything, though, England still led 14-11 at half-time through Tuilagi’s fingertip try. After that, there was frustratingly little. England did not score a second-half point and Flood, again, summed it up neatly: “We are still making far too many mistakes under pressure and being caught out by sides who are taking their chances much better than us.”
The same issue tended to surface under Martin Johnson and Andy Robinson but this was unquestionably the most disappointing result of Lancaster’s era.
ENGLAND:Goode; Ashton, Tuilagi, Barritt, Sharples; Flood, Care; Marler, T Youngs, Cole; Palmer, Parling; Johnson, Robshaw, Waldrom. Replacements: Wood for Johnson and Vunipola for Marler (both 50 mins), Launchbury for Palmer (54 mins), Brown for Sharples B Youngs for Care (both 61 mins), Farrell for Barritt and Paice for T Youngs (74 mins),
AUSTRALIA:Barnes; Cummins, Ashley-Cooper, Tapuai, Ioane; Beale, Phipps; Robinson, Polota-Nau, Alexandar; Timani, Sharpe (capt), Hooper, Paul. Replacements: Moore for Polotau-Nau (h-t), Slipper for Robinson (61 mins), Mitchell for Ioane (70 mins), Kepu for Alexander (71 mins), Gill for Dennis (77 mins). Referee: Romain Poite (France).