Rugby Union: Down and out Down Under

Jonathan Davies sees a cruel hiding that should have been avoided at all costs
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PITCHING this weakened England team against Australia led to a cruel and needless slaughter that was all the worse because it was so predictable. The Rugby Football Union cannot even console themselves that their players would have learned a lesson - the only thing you learn from a bloody good hiding is not to do it again.

But England have to do it again - in two Tests against New Zealand and one with South Africa. I bet they are really looking forward to them. It was a crazy expedition from the start. Even had their best players been available, England would have taken a beating yesterday. Not by the same margin, perhaps, but they would have surely suffered a big defeat.

If they felt it necessary to go to the southern hemisphere why didn't they arrange for a quick visit? One warm-up game and one or two Tests. They might have been able to persuade their full team to spare time for that sort of itinerary. When the Aussies came over to Britain before Christmas they played only England and Scotland. Long treks that take weeks do more harm than good these days.

The only English players to come out with any credit yesterday were the Saracens flanker Ben Sturnham and the second row Danny Grewcock. I felt particularly sorry for young Jonny Wilkinson who had the harshest introduction to playing at international level. Although he defended very well, he didn't have a dog's chance in attack even when England were getting plenty of the ball in the first half hour. The ball was so slow coming back and with the backline playing too deep it was easy for the Aussies to drift across and and wait to smash up the attacks.

It wouldn't have helped Wilkinson's confidence when he was asked to take two early penalties. The first was relatively easy and would have made the score 3-3 but he missed it and Australia went straight down the field and made it 6-0. There was then a chance to make it 6-3 but he missed again. Tim Stimpson is a much more experienced kicker and he should have been given the responsibility. It wouldn't have made any difference in the end but it would have taken the biting edge off the disaster.

The full English back row would have made a difference to the balance of the game but the front five held their own in the set pieces. It was only when it came to pace, mobility and tempo that we saw the yawning gap between the sides. While England wasted most of their possession - the amount they kicked away was criminal - Australia's ball retention was great to watch. Super 12 has bred into them a respect for possession we come nowhere near matching.

The switch of Steve Larkham to outside-half was a great success. He keeps it simple but his distribution is incredible. He was chucking long, missile passes and although the Aussie back line was playing flat they were hitting the ball at pace and the way they used their blind-side wingers as decoys or ball-carriers was difficult to counter.

With players such as Tim Horan and Ben Tune in form, England got cut to pieces at a pace they couldn't live with. The final try said it all. Garath Archer gets the ball from a tapped penalty, charges in, gets tackled, loses the ball and two passes later Tune is running the length of the pitch to score.

The only hope you've got when you're getting a hammering is to improve your defence. England have got to learn quickly to stop committing so many men to the rucks. You have to get more players to stand off and spread out. It may be no more than damage limitation but it's better than nothing.