Rugby Union: England need courage in brave new world

England 15 Australia 15
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The Independent Online
Lawrence Dallaglio spent the first 80 minutes of his career as an international captain in Alamo mode, defending his line with a passion forged in the flames of last summer's Lions tour and sharpened by the prospect of moulding England's brave new world in his own proud, predatory image. That was the easy bit. Having showered and changed, he then headed into the bowels of Twickenham to engage in a defence of the indefensible.

No leader worth his salt exposes individual colleagues to the humiliation of a public panning and it was perfectly understandable that Dallaglio, on his first afternoon as head boy, should wish to avoid criticising anything at all. Unfortunately from his well-intentioned point of view, his attempt to conceal England's lamentable scrummaging performance beneath an ocean of whitewash stretched credulity well beyond breaking point.

"I don't think we were in any trouble at the set-piece," he said, making unexpected use of his honours degree from the J R R Tolkien Academy of Realistic Appraisal. "We were trying things at the scrums and the Wallabies were counteracting us." Yes, Lawrence. They counteracted you by wheeling you round like a waltz partner before shunting you back whence you came, faster than a Bernie Ecclestone cheque.

It was left to John Mitchell, the hard-headed rationalist from Waikato, to apply the cold light of day to what was a very serious issue for the red rose management. New Zealanders know all there is to know about first rugby principles and the most basic tenet of the lot says that no-one survives, let alone prevails, in Test rugby without a solid scrum platform. The new assistant coach was under no illusion as to what went on at Twickenham on Saturday.

"We're scrummaging in a defensive frame of mind and we need to change that mindset," he pronounced, the quiet edge to his voice indicating that the scrum machine would figure prominently in this week's preparations for the first Test with the All Blacks in six days' time. "We need to attack at scrum time, to react more quickly and learn to pick up on what the referee is doing.

"By far the most important progress is the progress you make in the hard yards and we'll have to step it up immensely if we're to beat New Zealand. I'm disappointed at not beating Australia - I'm involved in rugby purely to win and I wanted to win this one, not draw it - so while I don't intend to beast the players in training this week, we have a lot to work on and the first couple of sessions will be hard." In other words, he will indeed "beast" his players.

And they very definitely need all the beasting Mitchell can muster, especially the tight five. Only Garath Archer, aggressively athletic from first minute to last, was anywhere near the top of his game. Andy Long's international debut was one whole 40-minute half shorter than he would have liked, Martin Johnson and Jason Leonard were too quiet for anyone's liking and while Will Green stuck manfully to his task and grew tighter as the game wore on, the early pasting he suffered at the hands of Richard Harry might have been terminal had the Wallabies possessed a back row capable of capitalising on the advantage hewn out by their countrymen at the sharp end.

The direct result of England's set-piece frailty was an almost complete marginalisation of the more expansive elements of Clive Woodward's game plan - a plan already undermined by Alex King's absence from the fray. Tony Diprose, for instance, was forced to perform an unglamorous range of spit and sawdust duties at the base of a retreating scrum - "sometimes you have to play rugby that way, but it's fair to say that we didn't pick Tony to watch him scrabble around on the floor all day," admitted Mitchell - while away from the bump and grind, Matt Perry and David Rees were far busier in defence than attack, their youthful wings effectively clipped by the indignities suffered by those in front of them.

That the Australians did not register their third win in four matches at Twickenham since 1984 had much to do with England's inexhaustible enthusiasm for life on the barricades, but their own shortcomings were every bit as costly. John Eales had a rotten day with the boot, missing four straightforward kicks before giving way to Joe Roff on the hour, while Michael Foley's line-out work bordered on the comical. One throw, allegedly aimed at Eales, boomeranged so violently that it almost doubled back on itself and hit the optically challenged hooker in the left ear.

Even so, George Gregan and Ben Tune found routes to the England line. Tim Horan had an influential hand in both tries; the solid foundations laid by the Wallaby front row ensured that alongside Pat Howard and Elton Flatley in midfield, the old maestro was able to indulge his creative instincts more freely than the constrained threesome opposite him. There was also much to admire in the liquid running skills of Steve Larkham, although the tall full-back from Canberra took a solid enough approach to body-checking Mike Catt in the final minute: an offence that earned the perpetrator a yellow card and the victim an equalising fifth penalty goal.

"Yes, I saw him coming and, yes, I knew he was going to take me out," said Catt, whose dangerous chip was the final throw of the dice for an England side 12-15 adrift. "I'm not whingeing about it, though; had I been in his position, I'd have done the same and while I had to stay down for a few seconds just to shake off the after-effects of the collision, nothing was going to stop me taking the kick."

If five Catt penalties were not exactly the return Woodward envisaged from his first outing as national coach, it was all he could legitimately have hoped for, given the instability and insecurity up front. We are none the wiser as to the ultimate potential of his new back division, although Perry produced enough touches of pure class to suggest a long and illustrious career at the top level. What we will know by this time next week is whether New England can raise their collective game tenfold in the face of adversity. If they fail to do so, the All Blacks will marmalise them.

England: Penalties Catt 5. Australia: Tries Gregan, Tune; Conversion Roff; Penalty Roff.

ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), W Greenwood (Leicester), P de Glanville (Bath), A Adebayo (Bath); M Catt (Bath), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), A Long (Bath), W Green (Wasps), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), A Diprose (Saracens), R Hill (Saracens). Replacements: R Cockerill (Leicester) for Long, h-t; A Healey (Leicester) for Adebayo, 65.

AUSTRALIA: S Larkham (ACT); B Tune (Queensland), T Horan (Queensland), P Howard (ACT), J Roff (ACT); E Flatley (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT); R Harry (New South Wales), M Foley (Queensland), A Blades (New South Wales), J Langford (New South Wales), J Eales (Queensland, capt), O Finegan (ACT), W Ofahengaue (New South Wales), B Robinson (ACT). Replacements: D Wilson (Queensland) for Robinson, h-t; A Heath (New South Wales) for Blades, 55.

Referee: A Watson (South Africa).

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