At a rain soaked Twickenham, England notched up a record win over their old adversaries from Australia, yet the final score does not tell half the story. The match hinged on a couple of huge moments and, as Eddie Jones rightly articulated after the match, his England side did get the ‘bounce’ of the ball. It could all have been so different.
After 54 minutes, with the match delicately poised at 6-3, after a bout of aerial ping pong, the bulky and extremely powerful Australian centre Samu Kerevi burst through a disorganised English front line defence, scything his way through would be tacklers. His mate, the equally dangerous Tevita Kuridrani was on his shoulder. A short simple pass and surely a try for Australia and the lead.
Alas for the men in green and gold, it was not to be. A spilled pass and the slippery ball fell to the ground. In an instant it was cleaned up by the English half backs and Ben Youngs launched a speculative cross kick into space, more to relieve the pressure than with any particular attacking intent. The ball turned over slowly as it approached the touch line and for all the money in the world, looked like it was going to trickle over the white line and into touch. Australian full back Kurtley Beale definitely thought so, as he ambled across. England’s Elliot Daly was a little more hopeful and chased with more purpose. The rugby ball is a strange thing, it performs unimaginable tricks, just when you least expect.
Rewind to 23rd May, 2004. The Heineken European Cup Final. Wasps v Toulouse. Also at Twickenham. Also in the extreme left hand corner. For Kurtley Beale read the Frenchman Clement Poitrenaud. For Elliot Daly, read the Welsh Wasp, Rob Howley.
As Poitrenaud ambled and stuttered, unable to make a decisive move as the the ball hovered and trickled within inches of the touchline, Howley pounced. Try for the Wasp and a European Cup to boot. As Beale did likewise, and the ball bobbled a hair’s width from the touchline, Daly pounced. Two kicks ahead and a try for the Wasp and arguably the victory to boot. The TMO took an age to finalise his decision – this really was an agonisingly close call which probably just went the right way.
The second crucially decisive moment arrived after 67 minutes, with the score at 13-6 in England’s favour. Australia were on the attack, peppering England’s line and it seemed that a score was inevitable. Marika Koroibete eventually forced his way over the try line despite a herculean effort to stop him from the seemingly ageless Chris Robshaw. Alas for the Australians, replacement hooker and former captain, Stephen Moore, was adjudged to have caused an obstruction as Koroibete was driving for the line and the score was ruled out. Arguably the right decision after what seemed like another eternity as the TMO made his ruling.
Heartache for the visitors. A huge let off for the hosts. England sensed their opportunity. This was their moment, some might say a ‘devil may care’ approach suddenly engulfed them, or Danny Care to be precise. The Harlequin, fresh off the bench, and bringing with him his full bag of tricks, thrust a dagger into Australian hearts. Not once, not twice, but three times and all in the space of a few minutes.
Firstly, he cleverly chipped into unguarded space behind a ruck and Jonathan Joseph made the most of an absent Australian defence to slide over. Secondly, he affected a precise grubber kick, as England attacked left to right, which bounced into the obliging hands of Jonny May, who had not had the best of games, yet he finished with a flourish to continue his excellent try scoring record this season. Thirdly and finally, he dived over himself following a sharp English handling move to cap a remarkable few minutes. The definition of cameo will have to be rewritten after Care’s colossal contribution.
England were flattered by this final score line, yet must take credit for a significantly improved performance after last week’s turgid encounter with Argentina. Despite the wet conditions they played with enterprise and far greater pace than last week.
Anthony Watson is beginning to make the full back position his own. He is equally at home under the high ball as Mike Brown, yet he offers so much more in attack. Few can match his twinkle toes, lightning speed and all round trickery.
Maro Itoje was back, albeit off the bench, replacing the unfortunate Sam Underhill, and he made his presence felt immediately, stealing a line out within moments of entering the fray. He made a huge impact throughout the match thereafter. However, for all his undoubted ability, he did blot his copy book when holding onto the ball for far too long in open play when May was screaming for the ball outside him. In a critical World Cup match, such mistakes cannot be countenanced. Courtney Lawes also showed up well and is becoming a regular feature in this England team albeit, like Itoje, he can be prone to conceding rash penalties and this is an area for concern.
Joe Launchbury, yet again, was a colossus in all aspects. He rarely makes a mistake and his work with ball in hand was exemplary, both carrying and off loading. Few can match his defensive qualities and he must surely form part of Jones’ first XV going forward. Man of the Match here was just reward for his efforts.
For Australia, they will wonder where it all went wrong after an incredibly successful few weeks and being in this match for so long. They were admirably served by skipper, Michael Hooper and his fellow back row man Sean McMahon, as well as the rampaging front row pair of Sekope Kepu and Scott Sio. Their backs also looked consistently dangerous.
Yet international matches are often won on fine margins. If Beale had been as cute defensively as he was when in attacking mode and, if Moore had not decided to support Koroibete quite so closely when he was about to score, the final result could have been so different.
England ultimately made the most of their good fortune and were clinical when the chances came their way. The lack of a killer instinct has often been levelled at them in the past but on this occasion they were simply ruthless and the Australians could not live with them in the closing stages.
It could be argued that this was only possible because they decided to throw a little caution to the wind and play with more freedom. It could also be argued that this was only possible because they played with a little Care.