A low-quality Test match played in a strangely discordant key - the sporting equivalent of an atonal concerto for car horn and tambourine - ended with England deep in migraine territory. The last time they took on the Wallabies in this city, in the summer of 2003, they played their most stunning rugby in a quarter of a century and set the tone for their eventual seizure of the Webb Ellis Cup. On this occasion, they struggled to string three notes together.
In many ways, it was a poorer performance than the one in Sydney six days previously, when they lost 34-3. To a degree, this was due to a substandard selection policy that saw Mathew Tait playing out of position on the wing and restricted Olly Barkley and Magnus Lund to a watching brief from the bench. In part, it was down to a flawed tactical plan, badly executed. Perhaps most significantly, it was a case of playing the wrong team at the wrong time of year, at a particularly awkward stage of the developmental cycle. There will not be another Cook Cup match until the autumn of 2008, which amounts to a blessed relief for an England side who have had their fill of Australians.
The Wallabies ran in six tries, three in each half. They could, and should, have accumulated 10. Had they been really clinical, they might even have threatened the record 76 points they put past the Old Country on that infamous night in Brisbane eight years ago. As it was, sundry green-and-gold forwards butchered opportunities of the most clear-cut variety. Indeed, Jeremy Paul and Nathan Sharpe, two of the more experienced members of the Australian pack, invented extraordinarily imaginative ways of not scoring.
Having drawn a blank in Sydney, the tourists at least managed a couple of tries in a second half wrecked by the nonsense of uncontested scrums resulting from injuries to both English props. George Chuter, the grittily combative Leicester hooker, scored the first in the opening minutes of the period, dummying past an embarrassed Mat Rogers after Sam Cordingley, the Wallaby scrum-half, had dropped George Smith neck-deep in the mire with a poor pass from the base of a ruck. The second fell to Tom Varndell, one of Chuter's fellow Welford Roaders, who suffered the savaging of his young life at the hands of Lote Tuqiri but kept his cool sufficiently to capitalise on a solo break from Nick Walshe in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
But, in truth, there was little to recommend this England performance. Chris Jones, the freakishly rapid lock forward from Sale, played a blinder on his re-introduction to the team, and there was a decent contribution from his second-row partner Ben Kay, the one member of the World Cup-winning starting line-up on view. Peter Richards, the new scrum-half, had the better of Cordingley and mixed it energetically with George Gregan, who came off the Wallaby bench to win a record 120th Test cap, but his decision-making was almost as ragged as his distribution.
Andy Robinson, the head coach, was forced into making a late change when Lewis Moody, a flanker in whom he places enormous faith, withdrew with a strained calf muscle. Robinson might have given the promising Lund an immediate recall; instead, he whistled up the Bath flanker Michael Lipman from the back end of beyond. Lipman started brightly, but he was no match for the remarkable Smith, who claimed the Wallabies' opening try by hoovering up a ricocheting ball in the England 22 as early as the sixth minute.
When Mark Gerrard beat the flummoxed Tait to Stephen Larkham's beautifully flighted cross-kick eight minutes later, the Wallabies looked more dangerous than at any point in Sydney. Fortunately for England, their hosts could barely win a line-out. Jones and Kay made an unholy mess of their opponents, to the point that Adam Freier, the Australian hooker, would have found it easier to find Lord Lucan than locate his jumpers. Andy Goode, the Leicester outside-half, kicked a penalty from right field to add to his fourth-minute drop goal, and it was not until first-half injury time that the home side opened up a serious advantage.
This third try, finished by Tuqiri, said all that needed saying about the English display. Having huffed and puffed and shed bucket-loads of sweat in an effort to limit the scoring, the visitors betrayed themselves by allowing Chris Latham to beat Joe Worsley, Graham Rowntree, Chuter and Lipman in a rampage through the most heavily populated area of the field. Mike Ford, the new defence coach, must have been tempted to apply for political asylum after his charges bounced off the Queenslander like so many dodgem cars.
Thirteen points ahead, the Wallabies nailed the game shortly after the interval when Larkham hit Mark Chisholm with a short pass near the posts. Gerrard finished a three-on-one overlap to take the Wallabies over the 30 mark and Larkham took them past 40 at the death. It was not pretty, or even particularly praiseworthy. But it was too good for England.
Australia: C Latham; M Gerrard, S Mortlock (capt), M Rogers, L Tuqiri; S Larkham, S Cordingley; G Holmes, A Freier, R Blake, N Sharpe, D Vickerman, M Chisholm, R Elsom, G Smith. Replacements: J Paul, A Baxter, W Palu, P Waugh, G Gregan, C Rathbone, C Shepherd.
England: I Balshaw; T Varndell, J Noon, M Catt, M Tait; A Goode, P Richards; G Rowntree, G Chuter, J White, C Jones, B Kay, J Worsley, P Sanderson (capt), M Lipman. Replacements: L Mears, T Payne, L Deacon, M Lund, N Walshe, O Barkley, S Abbott.
Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand).
MAN FOR MAN
Star performer George Chuter 8
His sidestep and sprint for the try-line early in the second half were worthy of a Test centre. He worked hard and showed a healthy appetite for the ball.
Iain Balshaw 5
If Balshaw really is the best full-back available to England, then we might as well forget about the World Cup right now. Lacked confidence and nous.
Tom Varndell 5
The service he received from Balshaw and his centres was woeful, but his ball retention when tackled is poor. His late try might be the boost he needs.
Jamie Noon 5
Hard work and honest toil cannot entirely cover up a lack of guile at this level. His overhit kick with the try-line beckoning was downright clumsy.
Mike Catt 6
Recalled by Robinson to inject some tactical variety into the midfield, but spent most of his time on the ball running sideways. Tends to fade too soon.
Mathew Tait 5
His priority must be to brush up on his passing skills. Still looks too slight for the 15-man version of the game and his tackles are too easily shrugged off.
Andy Goode 6
Does not look especially comfortable playing a running game, and his grub kicks through the drift defence were a disappointment. Seems too predictable.
Peter Richards 7
The one qualified success of England's back line. Combative and industrious, his break set up Chuter's try. Needs to speed up his delivery from the rucks.
Graham Rowntree 6
Forced off with concussion at half-time after an efficient though unremarkable 40 minutes. May prove to be his farewell to international rugby.
Julian White 5
A neck injury curtailed his match after the first half. Appeared in control at set-pieces, but his scrummaging no longer puts fear into opponents' hearts.
Chris Jones 7
One of the few pluses for Robinson. His line-out jumping, speed about the park and all-round athleticism make him a lock worth persevering with.
Ben Kay 7
Seems to have recaptured the form of World Cup-winning days after a barren couple of years. Bossed the line-outs and featured prominently in the loose.
Joe Worsley 6
Was keen to prove Robinson wrong for omitting him last weekend, but blotted an otherwise competent copybook by missing a key tackle on Latham.
Michael Lipman 7
A late call-up for the injured Moody, he had a busy match. Carried the ball purposefully into the breakdown and maintained an impressive tackle count.
Pat Sanderson 6
The captain, not really certain of his place in the team, battled away without suggesting he has the necessary ball skills and acumen to be a Test No 8.
Lee Mears 5
Now behind Chuter in the pecking order.
Tim Payne 6
Deserves another chance in the autumn.
Magnus Lund 6
Added pace and subtlety to the mix.
Nick Walshe 5
Figured in the move for Varndell's try.
Olly Barkley 4
Fluffed his lines with poor decisions.
Stuart Abbott 7
Showed vision. Should have started.
Paul TrowReuse content