Australia 43 England 18: Unnatural selection leaves England way behind Wallabies

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The Independent Online

Roll on the World Cup. The 2011 World Cup, that is. If Scott Johnson, the Wallabies' attack coach, is correct in his theory that the lion's share of the England side mashed and marmalised by the Australians here on Saturday will feature prominently during next year's global tournament in France, the chances of England retaining the Webb Ellis Cup they won under the peerless leadership of Martin Johnson three seasons ago are so distant as to be barely visible, even with the aid of a telescope.

There is little solace to be gained from a reading of the runes in the light of this latest caning. Andy Robinson, the wearily beleaguered head coach of a red rose army peashooting its way towards the serious business scheduled to unfold in Tricolore country in a little over 14 months' time, appealed once again for some sense to be made of English rugby's patchwork fixture list - for the creation of a structure that might ease, or even end, the conflict between the Rugby Football Union and those dozen or so élite clubs it has no means of controlling. He did so in the plain knowledge that the solution he seeks is not in the gift of the Twickenham grandees who employ him or the Premiership community that gives him his players. It is an issue of international rugby diplomacy, and the union game does diplomacy the way Saudi Arabia does ski-jumping.

Robinson did not make excuses on behalf of his players or coaching team. "Elementary errors are killing us," he said with impressive honesty. "We need to work on our passing, our running angles, our hard lines, our support play, our offloading and our defence."

It was quite a list. Experienced players, from Iain Balshaw at full-back to Joe Worsley among the loose forwards, dropped so many clangers in this concluding Cook Cup Test, there was barely time for the babes-in-arms to make mistakes of their own.

But then half England's errors were committed in selection. Having picked a running back division to play in the wet in Sydney six days previously, Robinson and his colleagues opted to field a significantly more conservative combination in the controlled conditions of the Telstra Dome, with its watertight roof. Bonkers. And having chosen the 35-year-old Mike Catt - a red herring if ever there was one - they could find no means of giving Olly Barkley some game time at inside centre, the position he is most likely to fill at the World Cup. Mathew Tait was dumped on the wing, Magnus Lund was dumped on the bench. One way or another, it was the logic of the madhouse.

The whole caboodle reeked of short-termism and ensured the positive elements of the Sydney performance, which had been far better for far longer than the final 34-3 scoreline suggested, were frittered away. Robinson might legitimately argue that some of the personnel changes showed themselves to be justified, but the three major English winners at the weekend - the Leicester tight forwards George Chuter and Ben Kay and the outstanding Sale lock Chris Jones - were to be found in positions where England already boast considerable strength. Where were the new creative midfielders, the fresh knock-'em-down back-rowers? Out of position or among the substitutes, that's where.

The high-calibre Wallaby backs had themselves a ball. When Robinson accused the Guinness Premiership of producing good international players while failing to afford them the opportunity of becoming world-class ones, he was at least half right. The Premiership has not thrown up a George Gregan, a Stephen Larkham, a Stirling Mortlock, a Lote Tuqiri or a Chris Latham for quite some time. England would happily forfeit a limb for any of them. But it has fast-tracked the likes of Tait, Barkley and Tom Varndell into front-line professional rugby at very young ages. That they are not used properly at Test level is hardly the fault of the bread-and-butter club game.

"I felt sorry for Tom, in particular," confessed Robinson, having seen the Leicester teenager thrown whole into the wolvish lair of the magnificently threatening Tuqiri. Varndell had skinned the celebrated Wallaby wing in Sydney; here, he was left dangling by some desperately unsympathetic passing. "We didn't give him any space in which to work, so he spent the night being bashed around," the coach said.

Happily, Varndell stayed the course and ended up scoring a sweet try in stoppage time. Chuter, busy and aggressive as ever, scored one too, dummying past a thoroughly confused Mat Rogers to scuttle over from the Australian 22-metre line.

But these were mere fripperies compared with the Wallaby efforts, which ranged from the opportunistic (George Smith) to the brilliantly conceived (Mark Gerrard, times two). The English tackling, or rather the lack of it, in the build-up to Tuqiri's try was embarrassing, but by and large, the hosts made their own luck.

The spectacle, for want of a better word, was further undermined by England's disappearing props, who headed for the hills at the end of a first half in which things had not gone entirely to plan in the grunt-and-groan department. Graham Rowntree was said to be concussed, Julian White to have suffered a neck injury. As a result, the 41,000 paying punters were subjected to the grotesqueries of umpteen uncontested scrums; to the ludicrous sight of Lund, a flanker, replacing Rowntree; of Phil Waugh, that fine open-side specialist from the Sydney beaches, filling in for the Queensland front-rower Greg Holmes. It cannot continue, this nonsense. It beggars belief that a hooker, bred to withstand the pressure generated at the epicentre of a set piece, cannot at least do a turn as an emergency loose head. The International Rugby Board should get a grip of the issue without further ado.

Not that uncontested scrums will appear at the top of the Robinson agenda any time soon. He has more serious matters on his plate. England have 14 more games before the World Cup, four of which are against the Springboks, in whose pool they find themselves drawn.

Assuming the fierce club-union dispute surrounding the fixture is solved in time for it to take place, the first of these 14 opponents will be the All Blacks, who currently possess three teams capable of beating the pants off the red rose side on duty here.

Robinson would have preferred an Italy or a Canada - even better, a Liechtenstein - as a means of setting the clock ticking for France, but when a coach is down on his fortunes, he gets Daniel Carter instead. Thanks a million.

Australia: C Latham (Queensland Reds); M Gerrard (ACT Brumbies), S Mortlock (Brumbies, capt), M Rogers (New South Wales Waratahs), L Tuqiri (Waratahs); S Larkham (Brumbies), S Cordingley (Reds); G Holmes (Reds), A Freier (Waratahs), R Blake (Reds), N Sharpe (Western Force), D Vickerman (Waratahs), M Chisholm (Brumbies), G Smith (Brumbies), R Elsom (Waratahs). Replacements: A Baxter (Waratahs) for Blake, 28; W Palu (Waratahs) for Elsom, 33-40 & 70; J Paul (Brumbies) for Freier, 45; P Waugh (Waratahs) for Holmes, 53; G Gregan (Brumbies) for Cordingley, 57; C Rathbone (Brumbies) for Rogers, 70; C Shepherd (Force) for Latham, 73.

England: I Balshaw (Gloucester); T Varndell (Leicester), J Noon (Newcastle), M Catt (London Irish), M Tait (Newcastle); A Goode (Leicester), P Richards (Gloucester); G Rowntree (Leicester), G Chuter (Leicester), J White (Leicester), C Jones (Sale), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), P Sanderson (Worcester, capt). Replacements: M Lund (Sale) for Rowntree, 40; T Payne (Wasps) for White, 40; S Abbott (Wasps) for Tait 56; O Barkley (Bath) for Catt, 68; L Deacon (Leicester) for Worsley, 68; L Mears (Bath) for Lund, 74; N Walshe (Bath) for Lipman, 80.

Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand).