Rugby Union: England sent back to finishing school

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Australia 22 England 15

Tries: Tune 2, Roff, Wilson Tries: Perry 2

Con: Roff Con: Wilkinson

Pen: Wilkinson

Half-time: 10-7 Attendance: 81,000

ENGLAND ARE learning the hard way that when they mix it with the grown-ups tiny mistakes inevitably lead to massive disappointments. Martin Johnson's side were 100 per cent competitive in the cavernous surroundings of Stadium Australia yesterday - it was certainly the most convincing Red Rose performance in Wallaby country for more than a decade and, quite possibly, in the entire history of Anglo-Aussie conflict. But at the end of a desperately hard Centenary Test they were still dreaming of their first win here rather than celebrating it.

It might easily have been different; and maybe it would have been had David Wilson's decisive 74th-minute try been disallowed by Colin Hawke, the experienced New Zealand official who turned in an otherwise faultless display. But if England are to stand any chance of winning the World Cup they should accept that their own shortcomings under pressure were far more significant than a referee's dodgy eyesight.

Seldom can the odd missed tackle, the occasional ill-advised chip ahead and a couple of fluffed re-starts have caused the tourists such unmitigated grief. From being the only side on the park throughout the opening half- hour they gave Ben Tune, that superb right-wing finisher from Queensland, the key to the door with daft, wholly avoidable lapses in concentration. Tune crossed in each corner on 35 and 39 minutes to wipe out a seven-point deficit and give the Wallabies some purchase on a grand occasion that was in real danger of turning grisly. "That first 30 [minutes] was a real worry," conceded David Wilson, their captain. "England made openings and there was some pretty desperate defence going on."

Sadly, from the visitors' point of view, they did some of the Wallabies' defending for them; for instance, Jeremy Guscott's reluctance to go for the corner allowed Joe Roff to snuff out a dangerous attack after 18 minutes. It was symptomatic. David Rees returned from months of injury hassle to give Roff all the problems he could handle while Dan Luger looked sharp and direct on the left wing. But finishing is an art in itself and the artist in England went missing at some very important times.

That lack of belief, lack of patience, lack of whatever, was all the more frustrating in the light of a superb 25th minute opener from Matt Perry, whose contribution at full-back had the words "major league" stamped all over it. Richard Hill, effective and uncompromising, led an England stampede into the Wallaby 22 and, once Tim Rodber had safely collected the Saracens flanker's pop-pass to maintain the momentum, it was a relatively straightforward matter for Mike Catt to find his Bath clubmate with a flashing cut-out pass towards the left touchline. Jonny Wilkinson's wide- angled conversion gave his colleagues further encouragement.

But the tourists went from proficient to profligate almost without warning and paid the price in duplicate. Richard Cockerill lost control of the ball as he drove into a ruck and swift Australian hands gave Tune a yard on Luger - more than sufficient to ensure a five-point finish in the right corner. Catt then fluffed his drop-out to give the Wallabies another attacking platform, Johnson was beaten to an important line-out ball and suddenly Tim Horan was pulling all the right strings in midfield to create another opportunity going left. The occasional outside-half found Chris Latham with a cleverly delayed pass, the full-back tapped on to Roff and the left wing conjured a wonderful round-the-corner pass out of Perry's tackle to send Tune over for a body blow of a second try.

Three points adrift at the interval, Johnson told his players that the next score would be crucial. It should have fallen to Luger, freed down the left by the rampant Perry, but the new Saracens signing panicked in sight of the line and kicked away the opportunity. Roff, his opposite number, did not make the same mistake. Fierce driving from Horan, Tiaan Strauss and the impressive Matt Cockbain gave the Wallabies a launchpad inside the England danger zone and, when George Gregan wrong-footed the remnants of the defence with a half-dummy, the big wing was on his shoulder to complete the formalities.

Even then England were still at the races. Wilkinson's penalty pulled them back to 10-17 and the deficit would have been reduced further had not the Newcastle teenager pulled a more testing attempt across the posts. That, however, signalled the beginning of the end. Gregan flicked a long pass to Wilson, lurking wide on the right, and the captain instantly fixed his radar on the corner. He made the line in Luger's tackle and, despite appearing to lose control of the ball as he attempted to complete the score, was awarded the game-breaking points. "It may or may not have made a difference, but it wasn't a try," said Clive Woodward, the England coach, emphatically. "It's ironic that in this brand new Olympic stadium, a venue equipped with all the latest technology, we can have this sort of situation. I've been crying out for a video umpire to be used in big games and I'm more convinced now. A World Cup could be decided on a mistake and I think we should act now before that happens."

At 22-10, with next to nothing left on the clock, England were dead and consigned to the earth. There was one last stir of the corpse, Perry grabbing a wholly deserved second try in injury time after a muscular burst from Victor Ubogu and a cultured floated pass from Phil de Glanville. But it meant nothing in the great scheme of things. When slick, no-nonsense finishing was at a premium, the Red Rose failed to bloom. As Johnson said an hour after the final whistle: "Close, but not close enough."

Australia: C Latham (Queensland); B Tune (Queensland), D Herbert (Queensland), N Grey (NSW), J Roff (ACT); T Horan (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT); G Panoho (Queensland), J Paul (ACT), P Noriega (ACT), D Giffin (ACT), J Welborn (NSW), M Cockbain (Queensland), T Kefu (Queensland), D Wilson (Queensland, capt). Replacements: M Burke (NSW) for Tune, 80; T Strauss (NSW) for Kefu, 47; J Williams (ACT) for Cockbain, 80; D Crowley (Queensland) for Panoho, 30.

England: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), M Catt (Bath), J Guscott (Bath), D Luger (Saracens); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), M Corry (Leicester), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: P de Glanville (Bath) for Catt, 80; M Dawson (Northampton) for Bracken, 52; B Clarke (Richmond) for Corry, 74; D Grewcock (Saracens) for Rodber, 65; V Ubogu (Bath) for Garforth, 74; P Greening (Sale) for Cockerill, 54.

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand).