There’s no escaping the obvious, England’s Cook Cup-sealing second Test win over the Wallabies in Melbourne was as complete as it was clinical.
Eddie Jones brought his squad to Australia with the express intention of winning the series, and they’ve done that with a week to spare.
In doing so – England’s first ever three-Test series win – they’ve climbed to number two in the World Rugby rankings, while the Wallabies have slipped to fourth.
What it shows is just how far off the pace England were during the Rugby World Cup. Oh, how they’d love to find a time machine with the form they’re currently enjoying.
The tactics of again imposing themselves physically on the Wallabies worked a treat, with the locals put off their game from the outset, unable to establish the platform of points as in Brisbane the week before. By the time the Wallabies finally got their head in the game and found their first points, they were already trailing by ten.
From there, England simply dug in. And waited.
As they found last week in Brisbane, patience was the name of the game, and as long as their defensive line held, the inevitable Australian mistakes would come. Twenty-four turnovers the Wallabies conceded, but I’d hate to think how many of them came on the end of extended periods of phase possession.
And, of course, England’s line did hold. Their defensive effort has been nothing short of phenomenal this series and is clearly the hallmark of the Jones blueprint. On Saturday night in Melbourne the England defence was herculean from the opening whistle, and simply never gave Australia a sniff.
Depending on your stats source, England made 182 of 213 tackles, or 217 of 242 tackles. Whatever the number, making that many tackles in 80 minutes in the range of 85-90 per cent success is incredible.
Jones, before arriving in Australia, mentioned his players’ fitness levels needed work, and he simply wouldn’t even contemplate such a defence-heavy gameplan without having made gains.
Billy Vunipola played the full 80 making 20 tackles, while James Haskell (23 tackles) and Dylan Hartley (17) played all but eight minutes. Chris Robshaw also went off after 72 minutes after hitting I don’t know how many rucks.
Haskell and Robshaw combined for 27 of the 99 tackles England made in Brisbane, too, and played the full match.
The series win was a triumph of Jones’ planning over the comparative uncertainty of Michael Cheika’s preparations. There’s no doubt the former Randwick rake out-pointed his younger teammate by any measure you’d like to throw up: on the field, media mind games, clarity of selection, whatever.
Jones somehow managed to maintain the underdog status, despite the first Test win, and beautifully maintained the narrative of England being up against it. How many times last week did you hear the phrases, “coach of the year”, or “number two in the world”, or “on their own turf”?
He didn’t quite have the same amount of time as he prepared Japan for their historic Rugby World Cup win over South Africa, but there can be little doubt Jones went into similar great detail about just how his side would pull the Wallabies’ game apart. And he’s not done yet; he’s already demanded a series whitewash of his team, and right now, it’s hard to know just how the Wallabies will stop that.
And that’s the worrying bit. Just where will the Wallabies’ spark come from?
The loss in Melbourne could be attributed to a number of factors; almost a self-fulfilling prophecy situation. A lack of go-forward platform begat a passive breakdown presence begat a backline forced to carry into contact, which once again found no way of making forward progress.
Changes will almost certainly be required for the third Test in Sydney, but I have no idea where to start. Reading the reactions and post-mortems since Saturday night hasn’t helped either, because aside from Samu Kerevi, Israel Folau, and Dane Haylett-Petty, every player should apparently be dropped.
And even then, Kerevi, Folau, and Haylett-Petty should play different positions in Sydney, so the stories go.
The reality is we’re all just guessing. Shuffling the deck chairs, if you like. I have no idea what rein Cheika can pull now, and I’d be pleasantly surprised if he’s worked it out by now anyway.
Besides, whomever Cheika picks, the England team will just back their white wall.
So it’s silver lining time. England – and Eddie – might be doing the Wallabies a massive favour.
If the Wallabies have any success in the Rugby Championship this year – let alone the Bledisloe – it might just be that the harsh lessons learnt during this Cook Cup series loss will have been the catalyst.
Cheika and his assistants – particularly attack coach Stephen Larkham – need to go back to the drawing board with regard to the attacking shape. Finding some would be a first step, and from there the variations and the alternate plans can be developed.
Because what’s clear after these last two outings is that while other teams have moved on from their Rugby World Cup methods, the Wallabies have not. They’re offering up easy pickings for opposition sides currently, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see teams letting the Wallabies play all the rugby, while they just defend and wait for errors.
New Zealand could do exactly that and have a field day converting those inevitable errors into points.
It’s all fine and good for Cheika to deflect and say he has to take responsibility for the series loss, just as he did after the Rugby World Cup final. But there also has to come a time – soon, you’d hope – where the Wallabies themselves can see that whatever it is they think they’re doing for 80 minutes quite obviously isn’t working.