England wary of wounded Australia
England v Australia: Only the blissfully ignorant would describe England v Australia as just another game of rugby union. The Last Night of the Poms? There have been a few of them and the strains of Advance Australia Fair always have a particular resonance at Twickenham.
To listen to the visiting anthem is to feel one of sport’s truly great contests sweeping in like a ripper of a wave at Bondi.
Except that, this year, the currents are flowing from an unfamiliar direction. Last Saturday Australia lost 33-6 to France in Paris, a horrible result for a side beset by injuries and unavailability. Think of the finest Wallaby players – Will Genia, David Pocock, Quade Cooper, James Horwill, James O’Connor, Matt Giteau, Rocky Elsom – and weep. None will be wearing the green and gold this weekend. If Australia do not score a try today, it will officially be the leanest spell since 1899.
Should the English be feeling sorry for them? Joking aside, it is tempting. This is a land where rugby league, Australian Rules, soccer, cricket and surfing claim many promising athletes before rugby union has a sniff. There are also more antipodean couch potatoes these days.
Pity Robbie Deans, the Wallaby head coach, required to make a silk purse from some pretty scraggy raw material. It was some effort for his team to draw 18-18 with the All Blacks last month and expectation levels are low going into this afternoon’s game at Twickenham.
“If I was in England’s shoes I’d be thinking this would be the easiest game of the three they have left,” suggests the former Wallaby Michael Lynagh. “I’d be saying to myself: ‘Australia are a little bit in the doldrums, they’ve got a lot of injuries, this is an opportunity for us to take them. This is the time to beat them and beat them well.’”
Which is as good a reason as any for England to be deeply wary. Rob Andrew, a member of the England team that lost the 1991 World Cup final to the Wallabies at Twickenham and who is now the RFU’s professional rugby director, simply refuses to accept Lynagh’s theory. “It’s nonsense,” he retorts. “When has there ever been an easy game against Australia? Anybody coming to the game, please don’t come thinking it will be. They don’t exist against Australia.”
History does indeed back him up. Of the 10 Tests between the countries since that epic Rugby World Cup final in Sydney in 2003, Australia have won seven. Go a little further back, to the era of Lynagh and Andrew, and Australia lost just twice between 1984 and the end of the century. Small wonder, then, that the English celebrate every victory with such gusto. For today’s players an extended Wallaby slump is a scarcely credible notion.
“Growing up they were on top in almost every sport,” recalls Alex Goode, now England’s fullback but a noted sporting all-rounder in his teens. “Lleyton Hewitt was winning the tennis and we’d usually be spanked in the Ashes. There was an element of jealousy at how they used to stick it to us, with their verbals and their confidence. Now, as far as I’m concerned, we should be the confident ones.”
This year’s Cook Cup, accordingly, looks certain to continue its tradition for shaping both teams’ future direction, with 2015 World Cup destinies hanging on the outcome. Both teams want to finish in the top four in the rankings by the end of the autumn series when the World Cup draw is made. England are fifth going into today’s game having been pushed out of the leading quartet last weekend. The calculation today is simple: if England beat the Wallabies they go above them and into one of the coveted spots, at least until next weekend’s games. For Stuart Lancaster, then, as much as Deans, England v Australia is pivotal.
The past 25 years have already delivered some delicious golden memories, from the rousing 1988 win under Will Carling and Andrew’s air-punching delight in the 1995 World Cup quarter-final, to a certain drop-goal by Jonny Wilkinson in 2003 and Andrew Sheridan’s muscular triumphs in 2005 and 2007. If the English make less noise about the 76-0 defeat in Brisbane in 1998, it is because it still hurts.
It is fair to describe the Wallabies as reliably resourceful foes. Lynagh, thankfully on the mend following a life-threatening stroke earlier this year and back with the Sky Sports team covering this month’s internationals, compares the situation now to the early 1980s when the Wallabies toured more in hope than expectation.
“We’re back to the days when we might expect to win only 40 per cent of the ball,” said the former outhalf. “You had to be skilful and chance your arm in the backs because you had to make the most of the ball you did get.” Only when the Ella brothers, David Campese and Nick Farr-Jones shared a dressingroom did the pendulum swing towards Australia.
Training every day
“I’ve spoken to Stuart Barnes and he said they only met up on the Friday afternoon. We were training every day, were fitter, more skilful and more organised. That’s why we won. I had the same feeling in 1987. Only in 1988 did you start to think: ‘This England team is a little bit different.’”
Lynagh, furthermore, reckons England still need “a tearaway number seven” if they aspire to long-term glory. He also likes the look of the Gloucester outhalf Freddie Burns, who fits the preferred Wallaby blueprint of smart footballers. How does it feel to play against such opponents? “Even if we watched all their moves from last week or the Rugby Championship, they’ll have new moves against us and new structures,” says England’s Toby Flood,
So which Australia will we see? Lynagh points out Wallaby teams “very rarely put in two poor performances in a row.”