Australia 34 England 3: England fail to find feet in Wallaby waltz

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The Independent Online

The world champions received their anticipated beating at the hands of the foe they famously conquered in this very theatre of sporting conflict in 2003, but it was a beating of the softest variety, administered by a perfume-filled glove rather than a nailed club. England are hurting, certainly, but they are nursing only superficial wounds. Vastly more experienced red-rose teams have suffered infinitely greater agonies in Wallaby country, Lawrence Dallaglio's 2004 vintage being the most recent example. This latest bunch can legitimately look on the bright side.

Whether they will approach this Saturday's second Test in Melbourne in a state of mind sufficiently positive to make a decent fist of it remains to be seen. It will be the last 80 minutes of an unfeasibly long season, and such fixtures are notoriously difficult for touring parties. What is more, the Wallabies will be a whole lot better, a whole lot earlier than they were yesterday, when their first-half performance, littered with handling errors and undermined by yet another outbreak of powder-puff scrummaging, bordered on the desperate.

Yet England, more than 30 points adrift at close of business, might have taken Australia a fair way down the road to the finishing line but for an inspirational defensive interjection from George Gregan, who defied the laws of physics in denying Iain Balshaw an early try, and a couple of hot flushes with ball in hand. Pat Sanderson, the captain, was responsible for one of these expensive little panics when, having made the cleanest of breaks from the base of a dominant scrum, he spurned a simple flick to Tom Voyce in favour of a spectacularly over-ambitious fling in the general direction of Tom Varndell, who had already let two opportunities slip by failing to back his own startling pace in open field.

"We could have gone in 17 points up," muttered Sanderson, without a hint of exaggeration. "I'm not sure the Balshaw incident was the turning point. There were a number of them, if I'm honest. At this level, you really must take your chances."

Did it feel like a 30-point defeat? "Most defeats feel the same," the Worcester back-rower replied, through gritted teeth, "and they're always hard to take."

They are particularly tough to swallow when a side sets the tone of the contest and plays the more dynamic and adventurous rugby for much of the opening half, only to find themselves points down without quite understanding why or how. The Wallaby defence, one of the wonders of the rugby world for longer than anyone cares to remember, was sorely tested from the outset as England's bristling young backs sought to impose themselves on their elders and supposed betters. Balshaw gave Mat Rogers the runaround in the opening minutes; Mathew Tait inflicted a similar indignity on Stirling Mortlock. Had Varndell, as effortlessly graceful as Jeremy Guscott but rather less ruthless, taken on Stephen Larkham and Chris Latham one-on-one, England would have had 14 points on the board inside half an hour.

When Varndell did show a willingness to indulge his gift of express speed, he left Lote Tuqiri, perhaps the best wing in the world, in a state of advanced discombobulation. Thus encouraged, England launched their most meaningful attack of the game, creating sufficient space for Olly Barkley to chip twice towards the Wallaby line. Mike Catt almost scored from the first of them. From the second, Balshaw was odds-on favourite to claim the opening try when Gregan materialised from the back end of beyond to clatter him to the floor, slipping a hand beneath the ball in the same movement. After due deliberation, the television match official, Craig Joubert of South Africa, ruled in favour of the Australian captain.

"That was a 10 out of 10 job," said John Connolly, the Wallaby head coach. "It was right out of the top of the tree. We all remember George making a famous try-saving tackle against the All Blacks more than a decade ago. This was every bit as special." And Gregan himself? "A lucky one," he said, modestly. If everyone was that lucky, rugby union would be a game entirely devoid of tries.

Unfortunately for the tourists, there were tries in this game and they went the Wallaby way. The home side scrummaged as poorly as ever - the much-debated revamp of their front row did not bear so much as a single piece of worm-eaten fruit - but they slowly strangled their opponents at the line-out, tackled relentlessly and kicked their penalties to establish a 12-3 lead by the 47th minute. Then, towards the end of the third quarter, they holed England below the waterline when Latham picked a perfect angle in receiving Mortlock's short pass, slipped away from Catt and stepped past Peter Richards to the line.

England kept playing - no one was more Trojan-like than the ultra-committed Richards - but another sweet Mortlock pass presented Clyde Rathbone with a passage upfield, and even though Balshaw reeled in the replacement wing, Mark Gerrard was sufficiently close to complete the score. Three minutes later, Tuqiri and Larkham showed the best of themselves to create a debutant's score for Rodney Blake, a soft-tissue version of the formidable Springbok prop Os du Randt.

This should have been too much for flesh and blood to stand: outscrummaged props, particularly those of Blake's generous dimensions, should not be permitted to score gratuitous tries at the fag-end of a game. But when they get their heads round it, the tourists will be far from suicidal. The Wallabies will restore Matt Giteau to their side the moment he is fit, but they have few options elsewhere. England, on the other hand, can sleep easy in the knowledge that most of their biggest hitters are sunning themselves on the beach. It will be a different ball game a year from now.

Australia: C Latham (Queensland Reds); M Gerrard (ACT Brumbies), S Mortlock (Brumbies), M Rogers (NSW Waratahs), L Tuqiri (Waratahs); S Larkham (Brumbies), G Gregan (Brumbies, capt); G Holmes (Reds), T McIsaac (Western Force), R Blake (Reds), N Sharpe (Force), D Vickerman (Waratahs), D Heenan (Brumbies), G Smith (Brumbies), R Elsom (Waratahs). Replacements: M Chisholm (Waratahs) for Heenan, 48; J Paul (Brumbies) for McIsaac, 50; C Rathbone (Brumbies) for Latham, 68; P Waugh (Waratahs) for Elsom, 70; C Shepherd (Force) for Rogers, 72; A Baxter (Waratahs) for Holmes, 76; J Valentine (Reds) for Gregan, 77.

England: I Balshaw (Gloucester); T Varndell (Leicester), M Tait (Newcastle), M Catt (London Irish), T Voyce (Wasps); O Barkley (Bath), P Richards (Gloucester); G Rowntree (Leicester), L Mears (Bath), J White (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), A Brown (Gloucester), M Lund (Sale), L Moody (Leicester), P Sanderson (Worcester, capt). Replacements: G Chuter (Leicester) for Mears, 57; C Jones (Sale) for Brown, 57; J Worsley (Wasps) for Lund, 57; A Goode (Leicester) for Barkley, 65; T Payne (Wasps) for Rowntree, 65; J Noon (Newcastle) for Catt, 71; N Walshe (Bath) for Richards, 77.

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).