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What did we just see? Assessing the big Test matches of the weekend: Wallabies vs England

Stephen Moore has been as captain, and from the team, for the Fiji Test. (AAP Image/Dan Peled)
Roar Guru
13th June, 2016
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2339 Reads

As Eddie Jones and his mob made their way Down Under, the Australians had a right to be bullish based on the last fixture between the two sides.

But what people did not really pay heed to was the fact that a lot of water had flown under the bridge since.

England have a new coach, and were unbeaten for seven games (if you include the dead rubber against Uruguay) before this match.

After going behind in the opening exchanges, England clawed their way back into the match, and by the end of it were worthy winners by far. Plus, another one of the brickbats against England was consigned to the history books, as their hoodoo of not having won in Brisbane from four attempts was banished.

That start
The Wallabies started very much the better of the two sides. Enjoying most of the early possession, they stretched the English defence, with Israel Folau being especially active. The Aussies got two tries, both the result of good attacking play, but the ultimate try scoring act in both cases were down to poor reads – from Anthony Watson for the first and Owen Farrell for the second.

The Wallabies looked ominous, however there were worrying signs.

Firstly, even inside the first 20 minutes, the Wallabies had already conceded three penalties. Also, one of their attacks was snaffled by Maro Itoje, and David Pocock got absolutely smashed by James Haskell in midfield.

Bernard Foley had an amazing night in the previous fixture between these two sides, whether that was off the tee or in general play. And despite being imperious with ball in hand, it seemed that the kicking metronome Foley was left back in Twickenham. It proved costly, as the six points missed from the tee would have seen Australia lead going into the final minutes.

The England fightback
England soon started to get more of the ball, and just a few minutes after the Folau try, Mike Brown and Jonathan Joseph combined for England’s first line-break, and soon they had their first points through a Farrell penalty.

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Farrell soon got another chance straight in front of the sticks after a kicking error from Folau granted them field position. In fact, before the error from Folau, Foley missed touch from a penalty, which shows that England’s comeback was partly down to their own grit, and partly due to errors from the Wallabies.

Another point worth noting is that despite not containing any one player renowned as a specialist ‘jackal’, England still made enough of an impact forcing penalties and turnovers.

Bodyline
Heading into the series, the talk from the England camp was about how they were going out to play ‘Bodyline’ rugby.

Officially, Christian Lealiifano was not starting due to a lack of training on account of the birth of his first child. But one can’t help but think that Michael Cheika might have had one eye on England’s centre pairing of Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph.

As it turned out, inside the first half itself both the centre pairings were separated, as England replaced Burrell with George Ford, in what can only be termed a tactical masterstroke, and Australia had to withdraw Rob Horne due to injury, thus bringing Lealiifano into the centres.

While Australia’s pack were definitely outmuscled, and England did bring a physicality to the park, it was nothing out of the ordinary for a Test match of this level. Australia were in no ways man-handled or destroyed. England were simply better on the day.

Some great individual performances
Leading the charge for England’s forwards were Maro Itoje and James Haskell. Itoje seems to be cut from the same cloth as Martin Johnson, John Eales and Victor Matfield. He was imperious at the set piece, the breakdown, or in general play. A star in the making.

During the second half, Haskell was everywhere, making tackles – try-saving ones at that – effecting turnovers and even going on a 20-metre run that led to the important Marland Yarde try in the second half. Haskell has been a polarising figure in English rugby, but he has really blossomed under the tutelage of Jones.

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Another Englishman to have gained Jones’ trust and repaid that faith is Ford. After Farrell’s performances for Saracens and Ford’s own nightmare game against Wales, the pressure was on, and it seemed he would have lost his place after being dropped to the bench for the first Test. But as luck would have it, he was brought on early in the match, and proceeded to put in a brilliantly composed performance, having been freed of the goalkicking duties. His cut-out ball for Yarde’s try and the awareness to put a kick in to set up Jack Nowell’s clincher underlined his class.

For the Wallabies, Folau was dangerous as always, although he chose the wrong pass twice but did not have to pay for it as tries were scored soon after anyway. While he apparently got the man of the match award, he also made the odd error, such as in the first half, when he kicked out on the full and England scored their second penalty off the ensuing play. He was also involved in the horror try they conceded. Goes to show how he might be the most dangerous fullback in attack, but he still isn’t complete.

A revelation for the Wallabies, although followers of the Western Force will not be surprised at all, was debutant Dane Haylett-Petty. Offering an extra kicking option, and making metres at will in attack, he looked at ease on the wing, and showed signs of becoming a Wallabies mainstay. With Folau probably moving into the centres in the long term, Haylett-Petty could become a Wallaby fullback one day, and if this season is anything to go by, he’ll be there for a long time.

Crucial moments
The first moment I want to highlight here is probably the most important one – Foley’s disallowed try.

At 10-6, the game was evenly poised and England had the momentum. Then Foley threw a dummy and scythed through the England defence, easily beating Mike Brown’s cover tackle and dotting down. Referee Romain Poite had a suspicion of an obstruction, and sent it to the TMO. They both ruled Rory Arnold to have initiated contact with Burrell, and chalked off the try.

Cheika felt that the try should have stood, and I find it hard to disagree with him. The contact was minimal and Burrell had thrown his arms up even before Foley had begun to move into the gap. If it had stood, the try would have changed the game, sapping England of their momentum and extending Australia’s lead to possibly 17-6. It would have been a proper test of England’s character to fight back once more from there.

Soon afterwards, England scored a penalty and were gifted a try, turning the game on its head. It was a lucky break no doubt (actually reminded me of Mark Bennett’s try in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final) but you make your own luck.

I spoke in my piece on the New Zealand-Wales game about how the last play before the break was crucial, and it was the case here too. After Joseph’s try, England had a six-point lead, which was halved after a scrum penalty given against Dan Cole for hinging. At the very next scrum, Scott Sio was pinged at the scrum and Farrell put the kick over to end the half. Sio was later sent to the sin bin in the second half.

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To my untrained eye both those scrums seemed to be identical to each other. Then why were the decisions different in each case? I’ll leave that to you scrum experts in the comments.

What matters is that England took a six-point cushion into the second half and the psychological impact of that was tangible. Yarde’s try early in the second half made that lead 13, and suddenly Australia were up against it.

Despite being 32-18 down at one stage, Australia still had the better in attack, and going into the last ten minutes were in with a shout if they could get a try just around 70 minutes. And that is exactly what they did, with Tevita Kuridrani barging over just as the clock hit 70.

The final crucial moment of the game, around 78 minutes, saw the Wallabies awarded a penalty around 40 metres in the centre of the field. Seven points down at the time, they decided to take the three points and then try and score a try in the remaining two minutes.

There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and this decision fell on the wrong side of that line. Looking at the clock, and the fact that they had England on the ropes, surely they should have looked to stave off defeat. Decisions are critical at this level, and England were somewhat wrongly lambasted for their decision to kick for touch in their World Cup game against Wales, but that was the right call considering the state of the game, and more importantly the scorecard and the time left on the clock. Stephen Moore got this one wrong.

Looking forward
England sit on the cusp of a memorable series win. For Australia, this must have been like a punch in the gut, as they never really expected to be beaten, and quite handsomely too.

Make no mistake, despite the fact that they were in it until the last moment, the 11-point gap was a fair representation of the difference between the two sides.

Pocock was largely underwhelming in the first Test, and has been ruled out of the series with a fractured eye socket. Choosing his replacement will be key, considering how the English backrow dominated Australia. In the backs, Lealiifano might get a start in the centres, and will hope to combine well with Foley if he does. The front row will also likely be changed, and Rob Simmons was also a casualty from the first Test.

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Australia have to improve their discipline and their physicality to win the second Test. Eliminating silly errors, like the blunder that led to Joseph’s try, or the offside penalty that took England into the 30s, will be unforgivable.

Foley also needs to get his radar back from the tee – Cheika would have been fuming at losing the game by 11 points, despite outscoring England in terms of tries.

England will be looking for more of the same from their pack, and it’s hard to see it being changed. Their thoughts will be on the backline. Poor Burrell might end up being the casualty here, as England looked a much more settled team with Ford at 10 and Farrell at 12. Mike Brown also had a poor game, and premiership player of the year Alex Goode will be wondering what he has to do now to get in if he isn’t selected now.

England were not defensively impermeable by any means, and Jones will be looking to rectify that ahead of the second Test, especially knowing the threat of Australia’s outside backs.

The series is nicely poised heading into the all-important second Test, and the only thing guaranteed at this stage is more Eddie Jones soundbites.

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