Eddie Jones promised Bodyline rugby against the Wallabies. But Eddie’s England, with their 39-28 victory in the first Test at Brisbane against Michael Cheika’s rusty Australia, really delivered a Big Bash thrashing.
The first rule of winning rugby is this. The team that wins the advantage line battle wins the Test.
More of the wash-up from Wallabies vs England
» Moore can take a leaf out of Smith’s book
» Five talking points
» Who should replace David Pocock?
» Match report: Eddie’s England too good
» DIY player ratings
» Roar Forum – what changes should the Wallabies make?
» Watch the full highlights
England did not only win the advantage line battle on attack, they monstered the Wallabies at the breakdown on defence.
This was Big Bash rugby rather than a head-high rugby version of Bodyline.
Before the Test, Dylan Hartley rather conveniently told the Wallabies that this gain line battle was going to be England’s focus: “We’ve just got to think about our first game … It’s not doing stupid things and going over the top and running around like a headless chook. It’s fronting up, being physical, being aggressive, owning the game line.”
This is what England did ruthlessly, almost without emotion but about as effectively as these smash-and-grab rugby tactics can be effected.
Their monstering of the Wallabies pack, at the rucks and in the scrums, resulted in a flow of penalties that Owen Farrell invariably kicked over with the deadly accuracy of a sharp-shooter. This is what rule about winning the advantage means in rugby reality.
Amid all the doom and gloom at the end of the Test (from the Australian camp), the fact that the Wallabies scored four tries to three was lost. The Wallabies kicker, Bernard Foley, had an off day with his boot, knocking over one conversion (a lost of eight points!) and two penalties (more lost points).
Eddie Jones was stating the obvious when he insisted that “we gave the Wallabies some easy tries and need to do some work on our defence.”
Coaches love it when they can confront their winning side with more “work-ons.”
Despite the much-vaunted Wallabies back row, it was England who won the battle of the breakdown winning more steals and conceding fewer penalties. At half-time, for instance, the penalty count was 9-2 in England’s favour.
This penalty count allowed England to rumble their way back into a Test that looked lost after 16 minutes when the Wallabies scored two absolutely brilliant tries, by Michael Hooper (after three involvements in the sequence of plays leading up to the try) and Israel Folau (111m gained) powering away on one of his arcing, half circle runs that are becoming a trade mark feature of his attacking play.
Then about 15 minutes later, after England had scrambled back into the match with a series of favourable penalties, came the incident that in retrospect put a hole in the winning hopes of the Wallabies.
The Wallabies backline flowed into action with some lovely passing along the chain. Runners and dummy runners were motion. The England defence was bewildered as their players drifted, like blinded warriors, away from where the action really was.
Bernard Foley, coming into the line on a loop for a second touch, scampered through a massive gap. Try time! And a new scoreline of Australia 17-9 England.
Oh no! Amid the high-fives and jubilation on and off the field we could now hear the referee Frenchman Romain Poite call to the TMO to check for obstruction in the play.
The replays showed that Poite’s call was accurate. Big Rory Arnold, playing in his first Test and excelling most of the time, mistimed his angled run in front of Foley and clearly obstructed a defender who may or probably may not have grabbed Foley on his slippery eel run.
The rust in the Wallabies machine, unused since the Rugby World Cup 2015 final, was exposed in this incident. You wouldn’t expect a well-rehearsed set move like this to go astray at Melbourne. Surely not!
Throughout the Test, too, players like Tevita Kuridrani bombed tries that a well-oiled machine, in well-used running order would not have performed efficiently.
England had played seven Tests while the Wallabies machine was lying idle. They had won all seven. Throughout Saturday’s win (it’s eighth and the best winning sequence since Clive Woodward’s Rugby World Cup-winning side of 2003) it was clear that the England machine was in fine running order.
No rust in the works, even though the start was somewhat sluggish.
I say no rust, even from the beginning of the Test, because even during that sluggish start, there was an incident that demonstrated to me that the battle plan had been carefully worked out and, even more importantly, the players were primed to carry it out.
In one of the first sequences of ball handling, slick passing and devastating ensemble play by the fired up Wallabies, David Pocock was absolutely smashed by a ferocious, fair but bone-rattling tackle by James Haskell. It seemed to me that the England No.7 had been given the role of taking care of Pocock. And Haskell did not miss his target.
To his credit, Pocock retained the ball, even though he was smashed down to the ground with a tremendous thud. But there was a sign in this, or I saw a sign in this, that England had targeted the Wallabies back three for special attention.
The interesting aspect of all this, as far as I am concerned, that England seemed to give away the scramble for the turnover ball by the ‘poaching’ method, a method favoured by David Pocock, Scott Fardey and Michael Hooper (to a lesser extent).
The England method – and, in the main, the Wales and Ireland method too in their Tests against the All Blacks and the Springboks – was to smash through the ruck, as if it was a door to be demolished.
In contrast, the Wallabies method as to see the ruck as a trap-door and a chance to get down into it to find the ball somewhere there amidst the mess of bodies.
European rugby seems to have moved on from this Wallabies poaching approach to the rucks. Most importantly, the referees seemed to have moved on, too.
Rugby theory never remains fixed. I see a new rucking theory evolving that favours players on their feet and bursting through rucks. Aaron Smith, the All Blacks halfback, for instance, often got the ball from a ruck with a couple of burly Welsh forwards attached to it.
The now favoured method at the rucks, therefore, and presumably this is endorsed by the World Rugby authorities and through them by the Test referees, is for the defending side to disrupt the rucks by throwing bodies rather than hands into them.
So England, Ireland and Wales using this throwing-bodies-in-method won plenty of turnovers and, possibly more importantly, even more penalties.
Ireland won six penalties in the first ten minutes of their Test against the Springboks and went on to win the Test, just, even though they played for about an hour with only 14 men and for ten minutes in that hour had another player yellow-carded.
England had won nine penalties to two by half-time, and 15 for the match against the Wallabies.
Wales, too, using the throwing-bodies-in rucking method succeeded in unsettling the All Blacks so much that they were leading in their Test at Eden Park with only 20 minutes of play left.
The All Blacks finally got some parity in the rucks and then exposed the tiring Welsh defence with their all-court attacking game when Ardie Savea came on to replace the starting number seven Sam Cane. Savea plays like Haskell and Chris Robshaw with more shoulder than hands.
He smashes can dig in the rucks but he tries more often to burst through the the ruck to disrupt it rather than digging for the ball.
I can’t see Eddie Jones changing much either in the composition of his team or its methods for the Test at Melbourne next Saturday night. And why should he. His comment that “we didn’t play well” was nonsense.
England played splendidly. I have never been much of a fan of the grinding England game. But everything the side did was efficient and done with a lot of controlled aggression.
Jones has given England a bit of polish with a back three of Mike Brown (who had an off day) at fullback and three very quick wingers, Anthony Watson, Marland Yarde and the reserve winger Jack Nowell who scored the last try, on time, with a fine chase.
And in Maro Itoje England have one of the rising stars of world rugby. He is still a youngster but he stood out in the physically gruelling role of being a second-rower. He won crucial lineouts. He turned over some vital Wallabies attacking runs. He runs and passes like an outside back.
He is destined to captain England. Right now he gives England that high speed and high skill factor that complements the more mundane, workmanlike skills of the rest of the pack.
England, too, are very fit and survived the last ten minutes of the Test with stronger and faster legs than the Wallabies did. The bench, too, contributed much more than Michael Cheika’s famed finishers of Rugby World Cup 2015.
It is obvious to me, and hopefully obvious to Cheika that his bench needs someone like Will Skelton to give more brute strength and brute power to the attacking line. The statistics might show something else but for the life of me I can’t see what Dean Mumm is doing on a reserves bench when, on Saturday night, James Horwill (second row) and Sean McMahon (all the back row positions) were also on the bench.
This 6-2 split on the reserve bench meant that when Rob Horne went off relatively early in the match, the Wallabies were down to one back reserve, Nick Frisby.
Perhaps – and hopefully – Cheika regards McMahon as a substitute winger if no other back reserves are available.
I think that James Slipper and Sekope Kepu need to come into the front row. The ball-in-hand game Cheika wants his Wallabies to play needs skilled forwards like Slipper and hard-shouldered runners like Kepu to break the defensive wall so that the fast men can flood through.
You would think that Sean McMahon would come into the starting line-up as a direct replacement for David Pocock, out for the series, at number 8. Whether it was the monster tackle on Pocock by Haskell early on in the Test, or the pace of the Wallabies game, but Pocock struggled to get himself as involved in the play as he usually is.
Given the fact that Cheika cannot afford to take any risks with his side going into a must-win Test, I would expect no changes to the first Test line-up aside from a replacement for Rob Horne. My tip is for Cheika to find the fastest back in his squad and give him the jersey.
Dane Haylett-Petty had a terrific debut. He should have been a Wallaby last year. He looks like a player who gets better the higher the standard of play. Cheika can now use Haylett-Petty more at fullback to release Israel Folau to play more in the line on attack.
The Big Three of Samu Kerevi, Tevita Kuridrani and Israel Folau looked terrific, constantly threatening while Horne was on the field. They should be given plenty of Tests together to work out the sort of combinations that the great centres/fullback/wingers combinations have.
The real issue coming out of the Test, it seems to me, is whether England are actually a much better side than the Wallabies, a possibility. Or whether the Wallabies were suffering from the rust factor, the first Test syndrome.
As we often do and should, let us listen to the wisdom of Steve Hansen.
After his side’s 39-21 victory over Wales, England’s 39-28 upset over Australia and Ireland’s historic (first time in South Africa) 26-20 victory over the Springboks, Hansen told the rugby reporters at Eden Park: “I don’t think people understand how hard it is to bring people together from five different franchises and get them thinking on the same page. It doesn’t happen just like that.
“When you get teams that come well-prepared like Wales, England and Ireland it’s a difficult assignment. That first Test is always a tough one. What happens next will be interesting to watch.”
Bearing this in mind, my prediction for the Australia-England second Test at Melbourne, more fearful than fearless, is for the Wallabies to win.