Rugby Union: Abject England stagger

Home side squander chances, Catt fritters away a conversion, Wallabies waste time - and so do the crowd
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SPENDING an afternoon watching a beanpole lock forward kick penalty goals is an acquired taste at the best of times. But not since the extended choreography of Grant Fox, the New Zealander, has anyone measured his kicks as precisely as John Eales.

On the watch, an Eales penalty took well over a minute from placing of ball to dissection of the posts. In between the precision came two giant retreating strides, a shuffle sideways like a climber negotiating a particularly tricky ledge before, in a whir of arms and telescopic legs, the ball skimmed England to 12-11 defeat.

The winning penalty four minutes from time barely left the ground, but somehow climbed high enough to dive over the posts. Eales has been kicking penalties for too long now to harbour thoughts of a fluke. It seemed a contravention of some long-lost rugby law: a lock with goal-kicking flair. None of the pre-match circus acts could manage that.

A year ago, the same fixture ended in a draw. What that says about England's progress in the intervening 12 months is probably not worth contemplating. An improvement on the 76-0 debacle in Brisbane last time out perhaps. Their one victory was purely moral; the faithful Jeremy Guscott staggered over for the only try of the game.

The rest was abject, desperate. If England could not beat Australia yesterday when the visitors gave every impression of mentally being 6,000 miles away (Bondi Beach was an acceptable home for the imagination), then what chance will they have when the Australians arrive a little less rugby- lagged for the World Cup?

Australia left their hearts on the playing fields of the southern hemisphere, a torrid mid-summer ending with three mighty victories over New Zealand and two narrow defeats by South Africa. Yesterday, on a grey afternoon, they were playing from memory, instinct and reflex.

The response to the final whistle said it all. The Australians, resembling retreating refugees, slumped into each others' arms, their eyes betraying condemnation of a match too far, one pay day too many. Australia, said the man on the PA, had won the Cook Cup. Eales just managed to raise his legs high enough to mount the steps and held a magnificent cut-glass trophy over his head.

The only applause came from his own team 20 yards below. The rest of Twickenham was heading for the exit and the bars. Many must have wondered why they left the snug in the first place to watch a match which, at times, notably when Mike Catt spun a perfect pass out to the touch judge (fooled presumably by the white shorts), descended into farce. At times, in the first half, Twickenham fell as silent as a church on a Wednesday afternoon, lulled into slumberland by the hymns of the Royal Choral Society and the stalemate in front of them.

No one at Twickenham was inclined to give the Australians their due, in their 12th Test in six months. Tactically, they had come to spoil England possession and disrupt rhythm, by fair means or foul. The niggardly refereeing of Paul Honiss hardly helped the flow. Phil Kearns raised the time-wasting to an art form, towelling down the ball at every throw-in like a mother fussing and fretting with a new-born baby.

The crowd took 20 minutes to catch on and then began the slow handclap. Kearns was substituted midway through the second half, but only fleetingly did Australia raise the tempo, one lightning move, instigated by Stephen Larkham and ended by Guscott's desperate tackle on Daniel Herbert, showed what sort of engine lay under the bonnet. It was just that no one seemed willing to put their foot on the accelerator. Had Mike Catt converted Guscott's try, England might have won. Nice theory. The overwhelming sense was that Australia would always have dredged the extra point or two from somewhere.

In a sense, England played into Australian hands, preferring to mix it in the midfield than stretch tired legs. The back rows cancelled each other out, hard though Lawrence Dallaglio worked to fire up his team. England should have profited from a strangely lacklustre performance by the Australian pack, but most of the decent ball was forfeited in a rash of handling errors from the backs or foundered on the point of some needlesharp Australian tackling. Only Catt, with a midfield break, and Matt Perry, whose late dash set up a try for Guscott, managed to break out of the stranglehold. The rest was desperately workaday.

Clive Woodward, the England coach, is still searching for his first victory over a southern hemisphere side and, on this showing, the duck is hardly likely to be broken when the South Africans come to town next week. The promised land of the Five Nations' Championship cannot come soon enough.