England saved their best for last in this fourth match of the Autumn Quilter international series. They had fired for periods in all of their previous matches, most notably in the first half against New Zealand, but then faded badly. Here, against a tired Australia side, who seemed out on their feet after seemingly months of hard rugby, they came good in the second half and sent the Twickenham Barbour brigade home happy.
However, before everyone gets too excited, the Wallabies had only won 4 of their past 14 matches and England had beaten them in their previous 5 matches, so the odds were heavily stacked in favour of the men in white. That said, a match still needs winning and ultimately England cruised home relatively comfortably as the score line of 37-18 reflects, bolstered by a blitz of second half tries.
They had seemingly learned their lesson after the Japan match, when they were unable to outplay their quick and nimble opponents. It was only when they returned to their core values of strength, directness and power did they overcome Japan. Against Australia they continued this theme with Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje and Sam Underhill leading the charge. Mark Wilson and Coutney Lawes were not far behind.
Australia looked tired and a little short of confidence coming into the match and gave England the perfect start by fluffing their lines under their own posts in the opening moments. A strong English scrum and Jonny May was over in the corner. A cricket score was feared but, to Australia’s credit, they fought back with spirit and adventure. An excellent line from Israel Folau say him carve a hole in England’s midfield defence for a splendid try and they were arguably extremely hard done by on two further occasions.
Firstly, there was a very late referee’s call to disallow a Haylett-Petty try in the corner, but only after it had been shown on the big screen and was accompanied by roars of disapproval from the well oiled crowd which alerted the referee to the potential forward pass. This really should not happen and the rugby authorities need to act quickly and decide protocol regarding television and TMO intervention. Secondly, there was another of Owen Farrell’s high ‘without-arms’ tackles in the shadow of his own posts to prevent a certain try which went unpunished. South Africa all over again. Lucky boy. He certainly needs to be more careful in the future as sooner or later he is going to be penalised and it could be to his team’s detriment.
England pulled away in the second half as they upped the tempo and began to bring their backs into the game after their forwards had made deep incursions into the Australian defence and broken the gain line. Elliot Daly was the first to profit with an arching run in from distance, his pace taking him away from would be tacklers. For all his defensive fallibilities and uncertainty under the high ball, the Wasps man can certainly finish. Allied to his monstrous boot, Eddie is going to struggle to leave him out of his side but questions remain as to his best position. England really need a fit again Anthony Watson.
Then it was Joe Cokanasiga’s time. The big Bath winger, all power and pace, butchered one chance by refusing to pass after he had made a colossal break but, a few moments later, he created another chance for himself with a big step and gleefully raced under the posts. Big Joe is raw but has big potential and could be an exceptional find. Eddie has to be applauded for this hunch.
As the benches emptied, George Ford came to the party and his deft hands created a clever try for Farrell. Ford has a good eye and rugby brain but serious doubts remains as to whether he has what it takes to run a match at the highest level should his buddy Owen did become injured or suspended. Eddie seems set that these are his two number 10’s but Danny Cipriani as a back up might still not be a bad option to have in reserve. Henry Slade and Alex Lozowski could not really be relied upon to fill in as these days as they seem to be considered as centres only and have very little game time at fly half for their clubs.
In the final knockings Folau scored another scorching try for the Wallabies and he was one who could leave the pitch with his head held high. He really was a shining beacon in the Australian ranks but was badly let down by his colleagues on the day .
There was also time for an encouraging cameo from Manu Tuilagi as he made his long awaited reappearance to the international arena. It is difficult to make too big a judgement after only a few minutes on the pitch against tiring opponents but it was easy to see, in just those few moments, why Eddie will be doing all he can to ensure he has a fit Manu for the Six Nations and, more importantly, the Rugby World Cup. Centre remains a position that England cannot seem to nail as the various combinations of Ben Teo, Slade, Farrell, Daly and Nowell remain unconvincing.
So overall, after the disappointing year that the English rugby team has experienced, this Quilter Autumn International series has been encouraging. More will be learned from the Six Nations as to whether these improvements are sustainable and whether England will be a force in the Rugby World Cup. However, Eddie and his men will be feeling a lot better about themselves as they head into the new year.
Owen Farrell has shown that he really is a vital cog in the machine and most certainly leads from the front. His half back colleague, Ben Youngs, has also had a good Autumn and now seems the only realistic choice at scrum half. England have a host of decent wingers, where Jonny May continues to cause havoc in opposing defences and the new lad, Joe Cokanasiga, has certainly put himself into the mix. Centre and full back remain a concern.
In the forwards, the hooker debate will continue for evermore but at least England have two very good options in both the seemingly rejuvenated Dylan Hartley and Jamie George. Ben Moon and Kyle Sinckler have certainly more than proved themselves and, add a fit Mako Vunipola to the list, then England should be well served in the department of dark arts. Maro Itoje continues to be an inspiration and his name must be joint first on the team sheet with Farrell. In the back row, despite missing big Billy Vunipola, both Mark Wilson and Sam Underhill have really excelled and the days of the likes of the ageing Chris Robshaw and James Haskell must now be over.
Eddie will also have learned that success for his England side, as ever, is largely dependent on bulk, power and pace. Big boys making strong carries at speed, taking good lines with decoy runners, pounding the opposition time and time again into submission. Once the forward battle has been won, then is the time to unleash the pace and power outside where the finishers can add the gloss. Defensively, it is all about putting constant pressure on the gain line, making big hits, throttling the opposition and giving them no time or room to play.
A blue print for success ? Only time will tell but the omens look a little better than four weeks ago. England may be back.
To read my thoughts on week three, the Japan match, click here.
To read my thoughts on week two, the New Zealand match, click here.
To read my thoughts on week one, the South Africa match, click here.