Rugby Union: Lots of spills, but no thrills

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER ELSE the Cook Cup match at Twickenham was - and the word travesty springs to mind - it was a vast improvement on the Italian job of last week. "There'll always be an England" sang the the Royal Choral Society all morning at rehearsals and up to the kick-off. And there was, almost. And they did score a try, which was more than a rather more reticent Wallaby side managed.

Actually the England captain Lawrence Dallaglio called them "streetwise", and they certainly were as the game went on. But at the start there were signs of panic as England hammered away, sometimes over-ambitiously, sometimes crassly, but always imaginatively.

But however close the game, it was still a defeat - a fifth consecutive one against a Southern Hemisphere side for the coach Clive Woodward. "There is a lot of room for improvement," Woodward said. Yes, but not a lot of time; a colossal showdown against the World Champions South Africa is a week away.

And England may well be without Paul Grayson, who injured his knee by slipping as he took his first penalty kick. He undergoes a scan tomorrow.

Woodward again: "We must play for more field position. We got caught too often behind the gain line. We don't want to do that against South Africa. But we have to be positive." And positive he was. "I thought our defence was fantastic," was Woodward's initial reaction. "It was one of the best defensive performances by an England side since I took over."

There was no doubt about that. But there were still too many unforced errors early on, too much spilled ball, too many over-ambitious passes and nervy, finger-tipping knock-ons at critical moments.

There was also the referee, the New Zealander Paul Honiss. The two captains might have taken a leaf out of boxing's book at one stage of the first half and called him over to ask him to allow the game to flow a little more. He left everyone totally bemused as to the cause of the crucial John Eales penalty which robbed England of victory four minutes from time.

Depending on your perception it was either Neil Back or Jason Leonard. Whoever, it is unlikely Mr Honiss would be able to make a positive identification as he was on the wrong side of that particular ruck.

It seemed that whenever England did start to threaten the Aussie line the move either broke down due to their own mistakes or because Mr Honiss had spotted an infringement. Either way, the result was still the same: England were pulled back, the threat was nullified.

He even contrived to get in the way of the full-back Matt Perry on the break that led to England's try. "I did well to avoid him," grinned the Bath player. "I looked up and there he was, a great big purple figure." It's the 15 figures in green and gold next week who will be getting in Perry's, and England's way. It is to be hoped that they can iron out the creases by then.