If anyone needs Ricky Stuart, it’s the Wallabies.
The Canberra Raiders coach flew to Japan to meet up with Eddie Jones and the England team only days after his side fell just short of knocking over the Sydney Roosters in the NRL grand final.
It would’ve been a massive boilover if the Raiders had got up, and with just over ten minutes to go they were looking pretty good to edge out the raging favourites.
The Raiders could count themselves pretty unlucky after referee Ben Cummins’ six-again call was rescinded, and a minute later James Tedesco was diving over at the other end in what proved the winning try for the Roosters.
Canberra headed into the decider as $3 outsiders, with the Roosters at $1.40 to clinch back-to-back premierships.
They are similar odds to those quoted for Saturday night’s Rugby World Cup quarter-final between Australia and England; the Wallabies as Raiders-like underdogs.
It’s why Stuart’s advice could come in handy for Michael Cheika and the Wallabies in Oita as they devise ways of staying in the fight with a powerful England team who are well drilled and well rested following Typhoon Hagibis’ arrival in Japan last week.
Jones said yesterday he’s been in close contact with Stuart for a while and they like to get together to exchange ideas about coaching strategies and challenges, and that he invited the Canberra coach to hang out with the England squad in Japan.
The Raiders only scored the one try in the grand final, but their resolute defence ensured they took the game deep.
Similarly, if the Wallabies can stick with England and be within a try to win it after 70 minutes, it will not only be a huge surprise but the pressure – perhaps exacerbated by their failure to even reach the finals at the last Rugby World Cup on their home turf – would weigh heavily on them.
The Raiders were aided by the tactics of the Roosters, who were one-out in attack and lacked creativity for 60 minutes of the match, content to try to grind down their no-frills opposition.
And given the selections from England, as well as their recent success against the Wallabies, they too look like they will be happy to outmuscle and overpower Australia without taking many risks.
Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola and Sam Underhill set the tone physically in the England pack. Their scrum is far more superior, and statistically among the 20 teams that started the tournament, Australia is ranked 15th in scrum success rate.
The England lineout is well-oiled too and will provide plenty of problems for the Wallabies, with Itoje a particular menace.
But with the axing of in-form George Ford at flyhalf, England have signalled that they will – at least for the first 60 minutes – want to stay low on flair and high on brawn.
In their own territory, they will kick long for the corners or kick for wingers Jonny May and Anthony Watson to contest, disrupt at the lineout, pin the Wallabies down in their 30-metre zone and make sure the defensive line speed is high and suffocate the Wallabies.
And when they get their hands on the ball inside Australia’s 40 metres, keep it close with the forwards rumbling one-out, or at least with little width, Manu Tuilagi at inside centre bashing it up in midfield and attempt to force penalties.
England will be happy to go up in threes, with Owen Farrell – who moved from No.12 to replace Ford – ready to bang over penalty goals.
Why would they bother trying to replicate Fiji and Wales and run the Wallabies around for the first half-hour?
England showed they could move the ball with patience and precision when they whitewashed the Wallabies 3-0 in the 2016 series in Australia, but their six-game winning streak over Cheika’s team has predominantly been built on pragmatic physicality than an impulsion to entertain with slick ball movement.
At least that’s what they will plan to do for the first three-quarters of the match and if they need to inject some more footwork and subtlety, Ford will be ready to come off the bench.
By dropping Ford from the starting side, Jones has also shown that he’s a bit nervous about the threat of Samu Kerevi in the midfield.
Farrell and Tuilagi are a tough pair to crack, and they will lead the call from Jones to “defend with brutality”. There’s little doubt Eddie feels that if they negate Kerevi, then much of the Wallabies’ strike power is controlled.
Henry Slade is also a highly-regarded defender who will rush up to shut down the space Jordan Petaia has to work with – or at least force him back inside where Tuilagi, Farell and the England forwards will be waiting.
How do the Wallabies give themselves a chance? Like the Raiders, if they can produce a massive defensive effort – and not give any many penalties – against a side that will want to bully them, then they’re in with a shot. A touch more luck, and the Raiders could’ve bagged a premiership when few gave them a chance.
But the Wallabies will have come up with a first 30 minutes that sets the tone, just as it did in Bledisloe I in Perth earlier this year. If England get away like Wales and Fiji did in the pool games against the Wallabies, there will be no stopping them.
Scotland may have shown that England can be run down with their incredible Six Nations comeback draw at Twickenham in March – after trailing 31-0 – but the Wallabies don’t have the attacking firepower to chase the game like that. And who saved England that day from the bench with an 83rd-minute try? George Ford.